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Chen, Laubichler earn NSF Career Awards

May 10, 2007

Two assistant professors in ASU's School of Life Sciences have been chosen to receive National Science Foundation Career Awards. Manfred Laubichler and Jiunn-Liang (Julian) Chen, who has a joint appointment in the department of chemistry and biochemistry, are among the university's latest recipients to earn the much sought-after awards, which were created to recognize scientists and engineers who have the potential to become leaders in advancing knowledge in their fields.

Laubichler's $400,000 award will fuel his project, titled “Twentieth Century Theories of Development in Context.” This research examines the history of theoretical conceptions of development and their connection to experimental and technological factors, as well as how shifting societal and cultural values impact scientific change. Laubichler collaborates with leading developmental biologists, such as Caltech's Eric Davidson and Princeton 's John Bonner. His research will mesh with another NSF-funded endeavor, the “Embryo Project,” in partnership with Regents' Professor Jane Maienschein. Laubichler says these two NSF projects will help provide a lens through which to examine the changing patterns of embryo research, discourse within the developmental biology community, and public understanding of sciences.

Interactions with the public and educational outreach are prominent features of NSF's Career Awards program. Laubichler and Chen hope to make significant contributions in these areas.

Laubichler intends to help further develop undergraduate and graduate curricula in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at ASU, related to biology and society, and history and philosophy of science programs in the School of Life Sciences. In addition, his funds will support the Virtual Laboratory, a digital working environment linked to the Embryo Project that makes all research materials and scholarly interpretations available globally.

The thrust of Chen's educational outreach will be in Arizona public schools. His project will jump-start the first of many planned internships and workshops pioneered by the School of Life Sciences, with partner schools and science teachers in Tempe, Mesa, Phoenix, Chandler , Scottsdale and Gilbert. Chen will work with teachers to develop hands-on and online training in molecular biology and biochemistry for youths, as well as providing paid summer internships in his lab for students from local high schools.

Chen also will partner with an ASU K-12 science Web site – Ask-a-Biologist – administered by Charles Kazilek in the School of Life Sciences, and develop a laboratory course for undergraduates at ASU around techniques in molecular biology related to his research.

Chen's award, titled “Molecular evolution of telomerase ribonucleoprotein: A phylogenetic study of telomerase RNA structure and function,” provides $674,155 over five years to examine telomerase, a unique ribonucleoprotein that varies dramatically in its biochemical composition and biogenesis pathway between ciliates, yeasts and vertebrates. Telomerase ribonucleoprotein (RNP) has been found to be a universal cancer marker.

Chen's intent is to “develop novel approaches to accelerate identification of telomerase ribonucleic acids (RNA) from a wide range of eukaryotic organisms, which will provide a framework for comparative studies of telomerase RNA's structure and function, and shed light on its roles in telomerase RNP assembly and regulation.”

Ultimately, he believes that study of telomerase and its strong medical relevance in cancer and aging will motivate students to pursue research careers in medicine-related and basic research fields and potentially fuel breakthroughs.

A past School of Life Sciences Career Award winner was Leah Gerber, a conservation biologist involved in conservation management and policy, behavioral ecology, and examination of cultural context and community participation in conservation programs. Her program of research affected K-12, undergraduate and graduate students in the United States and Mexico .