Four School of Medicine Faculty Win DST Spark Seed Grants

Four School of Medicine faculty were among the nine winners of inaugural Duke Science and Technology (DST) Spark Seed grants named by the Office for Research & Innovation on July 20. The awards recognize best-in-class research projects proposed by early- to mid-career faculty from across campus and the School of Medicine. The nine awardees were selected from a pool of 52 finalists for delivering innovative and creative ideas in pursuit of new directions and enhancement of research and scholarship at Duke. 

“As new scientific discoveries and breakthroughs continue to surface at Duke, we’re excited by the novel ideas that our faculty have for tackling the world’s most pressing challenges through research” said Jenny Lodge, Duke’s vice president for Research & Innovation. “The proposals of this year’s DST Spark Seed Grants winners embody how research can improve lives — and we look forward to each PI’s accomplishments over the next year.” 

2022 DST Spark Seed Grant winning projects and faculty from the School of Medicine are: 

Raluca Gordan, PhD

Field: Biostatistics and Bioinformatics 

Project: Using Deep Learning to Train a Single-molecule DNA Sequencer to Accurately Identify DNA Lesions 

PI: Raluca Gordan, PhD, Associate Professor of Biostatistics & Bioinformatics, Computer Science, and Molecular Genetics and Microbiology 

Raluca Gordan, PhD, is developing machine learning techniques for sequencing damaged DNA, which standard DNA sequencing technologies can’t handle. She hopes to use these techniques to better understand how proteins bind to damaged sites within the human genome and inhibit their repair, and whether this binding process gives rise to mutations that can lead to diseases such as cancer. 

Stefano Di Talia

Field: Cell Biology 

Project: Synchronized Clocks in Zebrafish Patterning 

PI: Stefano Di Talia, PhD, Associate Professor of Cell Biology and Orthopaedics 

Stefano Di Talia, PhD, an associate professor of cell biology, will be studying oscillations that act as timekeepers for the regular patterning of vertebral segments in zebrafish. His group has recently discovered an oscillator that might dictate the time at which precursors of the vertebrae begin to form. The group hopes to establish the molecular mechanisms of these oscillations and build enough data from this work in zebrafish to secure greater grant funding. 

Debra Silver

Field: Molecular Genetics and Microbiology 

Project: Interrogating Subcellular Gene Expression in the Developing Brain 

PI: Debra Silver, PhD, Associate Professor of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, Cell Biology, and Neurobiology 

Debra Silver, PhD, an associate professor of molecular genetics and microbiology, will be studying the localization of messenger RNA and localized gene translation in nervous system cells. These processes are key to guiding new connections in a developing brain and are particularly focused in just one part of neural progenitor cells. The project will be trying to develop a new technology to measure and control gene expression in just one part of the cell. Developing a new technology is not typically funded by NIH, but mastering the technique could open up many new grant opportunities and be valuable for understanding local gene expression in systems beyond the brain. 

Tomokazu Souma

Field: Nephrology 

Project: Harnessing Female Resilience Factors to Promote Renal Repair 

PI: Tomokazu Souma, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Medicine 

Tomokazu Souma, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of nephrology and affiliate of the Duke Regeneration Center, will be using human-derived kidney organoids – organs in a dish – to identify new therapies to improve kidney repair and regeneration. Specifically, his lab hopes to follow up on a recent finding that females have greater resistance to acute kidney injury. They would like to see if these ‘female resistance factors’ could be harnessed to treat kidney disease. 

The winners of 2022 DST Spark Seed Grants from other departments are: 

Field: Biomedical Engineering 
Project: Enabling Unbiased Discovery of Force-Sensitive Protein-Protein Interactions 
PI: Brenton Hoffman, PhD, James L. and Elizabeth M. Vincent Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering 

Field: Environmental Science and Policy 
Project: New Dimensions in Tropical Ecology: Megafaunal Effects on Biogeochemical Cycling in 3-D 
PI: John Poulsen, PhD, Associate Professor of Tropical Ecology 

Field: Marine Science and Conservation 
Project: Revenue Positive Carbon Dioxide Removal Enabled by Carbonate Conversion and Marine Algae Bioproducts 
PI: Zackary Johnson, PhD, Associate Professor of Molecular Biology in Marine Sciences 

Field: Biology 
Project: Integration of Metabolomics and Proteomics Platforms to Resolve Rad6 Roles in Energy Production and Stress Resistance 
PI: Gustavo Silva, PhD, Assistant Professor of Biology 

Field: Public Policy 
Project: K-12 Educational Inequality and Public Policy Preferences
PI: Sarah Komisarow, PhD, Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Economics 

To learn more about the Duke Science and Technology (DST) Spark Seed Grant winners, visit Duke Today