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Chemistry Department: A SLU Research Success Story

10/07/2019

The Department of Chemistry at Saint Louis University is seeing record growth in federal research funding, with awards to its faculty totaling $5.7 million over the next five years.

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Jim Edwards, Ph.D., back row, third from left, and Chris Arnatt, Ph.D., back row, fourth from left, are surrounded by the undergraduate and graduate students who work in their labs. Photo by Jeff Ackels 

The department’s latest total for research funding triples the amount received in 2016 and continues to demonstrate SLU’s strength in STEM areas.

The surge is fueled by National Institutes of Health R01 grants to two faculty members who are relatively new to the department. R01 grants are highly prestigious and are generally awarded to scientists from different disciplines and institutions who tackle a problem from many perspectives.

The boon also is supported by several established researchers in the department with long-time NIH and National Science Foundation (NSF) funding.

Chemistry chair Scott Martin, Ph.D., credits the success to teamwork within his department.

“Without our teaching faculty stepping up, this type of research success and growth would be impossible,” Martin said. “We operate as a cohesive unit where people understand workloads and work well together.”

Ken Olliff, SLU’s vice president for research, echoes Martin’s comments.

“This growth reflects the efforts of the faculty in the department and the leadership of Dr. Martin to hire and retain exceptionally high-quality researchers. To make this happen, the entire faculty has worked together to balance teaching and research across the department.”

Olliff added: “It also reflects an environment at SLU where many of these researchers have had collaborations with very senior faculty in the School of Medicine at early stages in their careers.”

Research as Part of Education

Research is key to the educational experience in SLU’s chemistry department, which is accredited by the American Chemical Society. All of SLU’s chemistry research faculty have undergraduates in their labs and graduate students also play significant roles in the research projects.

For two years, undergraduate chemistry students typically spend six hours a week working in a chemistry research lab, mentored by a principal investigator and engaging with graduate and post-doctoral students.

“The lab is their home when they are not in class, and our students are very successful,” Martin said.

The department also opens its doors to students from economically challenged high schools who spent the summer in a SLU chemistry research lab, mentored by SLU chemistry faculty. The SEED program is designed to improve the diversity of the science workforce, opening doors for talented students of all backgrounds to succeed in STEM careers.

Recent Awards

Very broadly, the recent NIH and NSF awards focus on mechanisms that underlie the development of human diseases. Chemistry faculty who received recent funding from the NIH and National Science Foundation are:

Jim Edwards, Ph.D.

Edwards will receive nearly $1.8 million from 2020-2023 for his NIH R01 and more than $262,000 from 2020-22 from the National Science Foundation to understand cellular changes that could lead to better therapies for diabetes and heart disease. The research has been building for five years.

For his R01, Edwards leads a multiple principal investigator – Chris Arnatt, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemistry at SLU, Gary Patti, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry and of genetics and medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, and Benjamin Bythell, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry at Ohio University. They are developing technologies to study changes in the body’s cells that accompany cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. In January, Arnatt's research received funding from SLU's Research Growth Fund

The new technologies will be coupled with a mass spectrometer to detect and test levels of each of the very tiny molecules in cells, which tells what is happening in a given cell at the moment. The goal is to get a clear picture of the cellular process when diabetes and cardiac disease occurs, which is critical to finding appropriate therapies and drugs to attack the diseases.

Edwards got his undergraduate and master’s degrees in chemistry from SLU and his doctorate from the University of Michigan. He was recruited to SLU in 2012 and is a member of a member of the inaugural 2019-2020 class of SLU’s Research Institute Fellows. 

“I was at a research facility at the University of Maryland without much student interaction. When I was called by the search committee chair and asked to apply, the idea of coming back and doing research with students was something that was missing. I felt called to be at SLU, both figuratively and literally,” Edwards said.

Marvin Meyers, Ph.D. 

Meyers’ NIH RO1, from 2020-2024, is for more than $1.65 million to examine candidate drug compounds to address diarrhea that is caused by parasites. These diseases can be deadly in infants and incurable in patients who have AIDS or have undergone organ transplants. Meyers also has received more than $430,000 from a federal R21 grant for 2020-2021 for research in this area. His focus is on intelligent drug design ─ finding new drugs for infectious diseases that kill millions of people annually and are particularly devastating for those who are poor.

Both awards are multiple principal investor grants, with Dave Griggs, Ph.D., associate professor of  molecular microbiology and immunology at SLU School of Medicine,  and Chris Huston, M.D., professor of medicine at the University of Vermont. 

Meyers, an associate professor of chemistry, is a medicinal chemist with a background in industry who transferred to the chemistry department from SLU’s Center for World Health and Medicine in 2017. He directs the department’s new chemical biology program, which combines studies in chemistry, biology and pharmacology and physiology. His research has been funded by  SLU's Research Growth Fund

Istvan Z. Kiss, Ph.D.

Kiss, the Arts & Sciences Professor of Chemistry, studies chemical chaos. He focuses on the interactions of chemical and physical processes, which ultimately can improve the performance of electrochemical devices such as batteries and sensors.

A member of the SLU Research Institute Fellows committee, Kiss is internationally recognized for his work. His recent funding through the NSF and NIH R01 for 2020-2023 totals more than $685,000.

Ryan McCulla, Ph.D. 

McCulla is an associate professor of chemistry who is slated to receive $440,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation for 2020-2022. His work is important to understanding oxidative stress, which is associated with cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cigarette smoking. He studies the mechanisms of alkene oxidation, a key for research into the physiological effects of lipid oxidation arising from oxidative stress.

 Scott Martin, Ph.D. 

Martin, professor and chair of the chemistry department, has been an NIH-funded researcher since 2004. His research stands at the intersection of analytical chemistry, biology and engineering and involves using microchip-based analytical devices to study various biological systems and better understand disease onset.

His recent NIH R15 grant for 2020-2022 totals more than $430,000. Co-Investigator on the award is Dr. Scott Sell from the Department of Biomedical Engineering at SLU.

STEM Moment

The resounding success of the chemistry department comes as STEM programs are thriving at SLU.

This year, the University welcomed the largest freshman class in its history, with the majority of students intending to major in disciplines that will lead to STEM careers.

The University has invested nearly $80 million to create STEM education spaces that focus on experiential learning with updated classrooms and state-of-the-art teaching and research labs. A new $50 million, Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Building is under construction and scheduled to open in 2020. In addition, Macelwane Hall, which houses biology programs and teaching labs for chemistry, opened in January after undergoing $28.8 million in renovations.