Biology Students Gain Research Experience with NIH Grant

Undergraduates Benefit from National Institutes of Health Award

Marist College Biology Students Benefit from NIH GrantMany students enrolled in the School of Science are now being taught by an NIH grant-winning professor. Paula Checchi, Assistant Professor of Biology at Marist, was recently notified that she was awarded $261,319 in research funds by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), specifically the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

There are three main goals of this program: to support meritorious research, to expose students to research, and to strengthen the research environment of the institution. In order to apply for the grant, applicants go through a lengthy process, with the final submission of documents containing over 47 pages. Checchi credits the grants office at Marist in being very helpful in ensuring that she had all of the proper documentation in place.

The NIH funding process is extremely competitive. Checchi's proposal was first distributed to a group of reviewers for a formal peer review process, where she received an initial score and was ranked in relation to other applications. Only those applications that are ranked in the top quartile go through a second round of review at the NIH. From there, decisions are made to select which grant proposals are to be funded and with how much money. Depending on the NIH budget, between 5-20% of all submissions are funded each year and Checchi was selected among those.

Checchi has several goals for her research. “The research my lab is conducting now stems from several discoveries I made as a postdoctoral fellow, which capitalizes upon my long-standing passion for understanding chromatin biology and genome regulation,” she explained. “During my postdoctoral research at the University of California-Davis, I used a molecular genetic approach to understand meiotic regulation in the nematode model, C. elegans. The overarching objective of my current research program is to define the cellular and molecular mechanisms that govern chromosome behavior during meiosis.” She is hopeful that her findings can lead to answers about infertility, birth defects, and cancer in humans.  

Not only does the NIH grant provide new research opportunities for Checchi but now her students also have the chance to gain valuable experience. Checchi currently teaches General Biology I and II, a senior level Capping course, an upper-level Developmental Biology course, and a non-majors course in Human/Genetics. She works exclusively with undergraduates, with her lab providing paid research opportunities to four students, all Biology, Biochemistry, or Biomedical Science majors, ranging from freshmen to seniors. “I feel that regardless of the career path students choose to pursue, working in a laboratory environment will help students develop a skill set that can be applied to a wide range of professions,” Checchi said. “My laboratory will serve as a learning environment where students have the opportunity to generate publication-quality data while fostering critical thinking to building confidence and improve written and oral communication skills, which are attributes necessary for success in any field.”

Checchi trains an average of four students per semester along with several students during the summer. The grant provides $17,280 for full-time summer researchers in eight-week durations for the next three years and provides funding for one student per year to attend a national conference. The grant also provides $71,000 in funds for new equipment and supplies for the researchers to use.

There are several projects that Checchi and her students are working on now, which stem from her research during her time as a postdoctoral fellow. According to Checchi, a substantial amount of the preliminary data in the grant was generated by Alyssa Scott ’15, who is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Genetics at Emory University.

Scott, who graduated with a degree in Biology, began working with Checchi by doing research for her during the summer. She began assisting Checchi in more of her research, specifically studying how DNA is repaired. “The main project that I worked on involved using a method to reliably induce DNA breaks at specific times,” she said. “I also gained experience in other molecular biology techniques. Overall, the work that I did on various projects involved answering questions about DNA repair using genetic techniques.”

It was through this research that Scott realized she was a perfect fit in a lab. “I’m so grateful that Dr. Checchi came to Marist when I was still there because my experience with her really influenced my entire career trajectory,” she said. “I realize now in hindsight how unique it is to have had the kind of variety and depth of research and internship experiences that I did at a liberal arts college.  I think the work that she and other faculty members are doing really sets Marist apart from other schools.”

Scott credits her experience with Checchi as the reason why she was accepted into the Ph.D. program at Emory. “I’ve been putting to use a lot of the same molecular biology techniques that I became comfortable with while doing research in Dr. Checchi’s lab,” she said. “I was able to get experience writing about my research and presenting at conferences as well. From working so much in her lab, I think the most valuable things I learned went beyond lab skills or techniques. Learning to think like a scientist is a skill that I can take with me for a long time.” 

Written by Adriana Belmonte '17

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