Two Trinity College faculty members from different academic disciplines are teaming up to work on a new research project studying cell signaling, thanks to a three-year grant of $293,514 awarded by the National Science Foundation.

Michelle Kovarik, Chemistry
Associate Professor of Chemistry Michelle Kovarik

Associate Professor of Chemistry Michelle Kovarik is the principal investigator (PI) for the project, titled “RUI: Microelectrophoretic and Statistical Tools for Studies of Kinase- and ROS-Based Signaling in Dictyostelium discoideum.” The grant began September 1, 2021, and includes funding to support three undergraduate student researchers from Trinity each summer of the grant’s duration. Kovarik invited Associate Professor of Mathematics Per Sebastian Skardal to collaborate on innovative data analysis for the project.

“Living organisms use a diversity of molecules to communicate information within and between cells, and scientists are still investigating the interactions between these molecules,” Kovarik said. “The grant project looks at the ways in which cells communicate in response to different stresses using enzymes and reactive oxygen species—not in separate measurements, but together, looking at how they might be interacting.” Kovarik’s previous NSF grant studied enzyme signaling, and a past grant she received from a private foundation examined reactive oxygen species. “This proposal takes the two branches of my research until now and looks at how they are interrelated in a single project,” she said.

Associate Professor of Mathematics Per Sebastian Skardal

For one part of the project, Skardal and his students will develop new mathematical tools to identify subpopulations of cells that may respond differently to stresses than the rest of the population. “It would be useful to have mathematical tools to analyze the chemical data we get and draw out some of those relationships that become evident in the mathematics,” Kovarik said of the goals for Skardal’s work. “He has proposed some ideas and we’ll be testing those methods using data generated by my students in the lab.”

Skardal, who usually studies dynamical systems and nonlinear dynamics, said, “This project relates to my field because I’m interested in systems where there are a lot of different objects that interact in complicated ways and patterns. Being able to address a problem that’s classically statistics from a totally different viewpoint using a networks approach is quite new.”

Alongside Kovarik and Skardal, undergraduate Trinity students will begin work on this project in the spring 2022 semester. “We have funding for three undergraduates every summer of the three-year award. We allocated the funds in a way that allows us to support international students as well as U.S. citizens,” Kovarik said. “In addition, I’m asking for matching funds from the American Chemical Society for Project SEED [Summer Experiences for the Economically Disadvantaged], a paid summer internship program for high school students interested in getting involved in research, and I plan to coordinate that with Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy.”

According to the grant proposal’s impact statement, “Students funded by this award will be involved in all aspects of data interpretation and experimental design and will also be full participants in the research life of the college, participating in summer programming, semiannual symposia, and department seminars.”

Skardal said the project will likely find some of its Trinity student researchers through the college’s Interdisciplinary Science Program (ISP), in which first-year students are matched with research labs on campus during their second semester. ISP students are among those who remain on campus during the summer to conduct research. “I think students would be excited to work on this project,” Skardal said. “Something like this is really tangible; there are clear applications for it.”

Kovarik said she has begun ordering supplies and will soon set up new equipment in her lab. “Part of the work uses fluorescent molecules to measure different reactions in the cells,” she said. “If the reagent is around a reactive oxygen species, it will be fluorescent under blue light. I’m hoping to have an ISP student work on this part of the project as well. We do measurements in microfluidics, with channels that are the size of a hair or smaller, so we will need some fabrication equipment to make features that small.”

Kovarik and Skardal plan to seek opportunities to engage the campus community and the wider research community in this work. The grant proposal said, “By advancing this rapidly maturing technology at Trinity College, the PI’s work will enhance the competitiveness of Trinity’s research endeavors while also preparing her undergraduate research assistants for advanced degree programs and STEM careers.”