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The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded a nearly $450,000 grant over three years to Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Janel Cabrera, marking the largest NSF grant in the College’s history.

This three-year grant, which begins in June 2023, reflects the high caliber of scientific discovery at Emmanuel and brings the total of current and active research funding and generous donations that the School of Science & Health oversees to more than $3.3 million.

Funding will enable Cabrera, who serves as the project’s principal investigator (PI), to engage student researchers in investigating mechanisms that affect gene expression during the early stages of development, using Drosophila melanogaster—the fruit fly—as a model organism.

“Multicellular organisms are composed of individual cells that function distinctly, due to the regulation of gene expression during development,” the project abstract states. “Developmental gene regulation is largely made possible by many protein complexes that turn genes on or off at appropriate developmental windows. An important example is the Polycomb Repressive Complex, which turns off a specific set of developmental genes. How this complex selects the correct genes to silence during early development is still unknown. This project will utilize the fruit fly to study the role of this silencing complex in orchestrating developmental gene expression. Discovering the mechanism by which Polycomb Repressive Complexes silence genes in the fruit fly will inform our understanding of development in mammals.”

Cabrera joined the College as a visiting assistant professor of biology in fall 2018, and began building a research team of Emmanuel students—including Maeve Hegarty ’20, Jenny Jobe ’20 and Aurelie Barry ’22—in collaboration with the Kuroda Lab at Harvard Medical School/Brigham & Women’s Hospital. The team’s early findings were published in September 2022 in Science Advances.

Throughout summer 2022 and the current academic year, the project has continued with researchers Arthur Langford ’25 and Enya Selders ’24, as well as faculty from Harvard Medical School and Brandeis University. Cabrera is excited about the opportunities the funding will bring to more undergraduate students.

This particular award was funded through the NSF’s Building Research Capacity of New Faculty in Biology initiative, which supports pre-tenure faculty at minority-serving institutions (MSIs) and primarily undergraduate institutions, providing the means for new faculty to initiate and build independent research programs by enhancing their research capacity. One significant goal of this proposal is to increase the participation of persons excluded because of their ethnicity or race (PEERs) in undergraduate research experiences. (This grant builds on the College’s efforts to increase representation in the sciences, and follows a fall 2022 grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to address a historic lack of diversity in STEM.)

I, myself am a PEER, and I can only imagine the difference it would have made if I had someone who looked like me as a mentor in college, or even in high school, I want to promote science literacy for all undergraduates, and particularly those who might feel out of place as a STEM major.

Dr. Janel Cabrera

In addition to supervising Emmanuel student researchers who will use genetic, molecular and biochemical techniques to address the goals of the project proposal, Cabrera will increase direct participation in research experiences by developing and implementing a course-based undergraduate research experience (CURE) that will involve 32-48 additional biology majors. The NSF award also provides Cabrera and student researchers with funding to travel to and present their findings at national conferences, develop senior thesis projects, and co-author additional publications.