Dr. Margarita Vigodner, associate professor of biology at Stern College for Women, recently received a three-year R15 grant in the amount of $450,000 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, a part of the National Institutes of Health.
An R15 grant is an Academic Research Enhancement Award (AREA) for Undergraduate-Focused Institutions. The goals of the R15 are to support meritorious research, expose students to research and strengthen the research environment of the institution.
“We have been focusing on studies of male infertility for several years in my laboratory,” said Dr. Vigodner. “This grant is a continuation of the previous R15 award on the same topic.”
As Dr. Vigodner explained, approximately 15 percent of couples worldwide experience infertility issues, and 35 percent of infertility issues in couples are due to the male.
“Some causes for male infertility,” she noted, “occur during the process of spermatogenesis, or the process of the formation of sperm in the testes. Many proteins, or macromolecules essential in the human body, play large roles in spermatogenesis. After proteins are synthesized, they get modified by other proteins. We know that proteins known as SUMO proteins are highly expressed in germ cells (cells that are becoming sperm) and that their role is to bind to other proteins in the germ cells by a process known as sumoylation, and either activate or inhibit their activity.”
This project will focus on inactivation of sumoylation in vivo (e.g., in mouse germ cells) with the goal to understand the role of SUMO proteins during spermatogenesis. “Understanding the control of normal fertilization-competent male gametes is essential for a better biological comprehension of male infertility. Furthermore, studies using small molecules that modulate a particular SUMO modification will lead to the development of new therapeutics.”
An important element of the R15 grant is the deep involvement of students in the research process. “A significant part of the proposed project will be conducted by undergraduate students who will have the opportunity to use state-of-the-art equipment, learn about hypothesis generation and practice basic and advanced biomedical techniques.” They will be taught the theoretical aspects of the spermatogenic stages and germ cell analysis and will be trained in various molecular biology techniques. The students will present their data at laboratory meetings, college seminars and local and national conferences.
“Approximately 50 undergraduates have been trained in our laboratory over the past seven years, many of which are now continuing their education at graduate or medical schools,” observed Dr. Vigodner. “Numerous undergraduates involved in research are co-authors in articles that are published in professional journals by the primary investigators (PI). Students who have been trained by the PI have also presented numerous conference abstracts at local and national meetings.”
Dr. Vigodner added that “this experience will provide students with a complete picture of modern practical research and will also prepare them for a variety of careers in the field of science.”