Amanda Morris | News Editor
On Sept. 15, professors Daniel Burden and Lisa Keranen-Burden began using a three-year grant, awarded by the National Science Foundation, for $300,000. After the year-long application, review and awarding process, the professors and scholars will now begin a new phase of their research program, investigating novel modifications of single protein nanopores. This grant serves as the fifth NSF grant that the professors have been awarded since 2006.
In October of 2012, the professors submitted a 60-page proposal, competing against other researchers on a national level. According to Burden, the proposal included descriptions of their three-year scientific plan: the significance of the plan in regards to the chemistry community, the professors’ past record of accomplishments, the existing infrastructure of the school and the influence that the professors expected the funding to have at Wheaton and beyond.
“Basically, the proposal attempts to convince a nationally selected scientific audience that the expenditure of taxpayer dollars on our program here at Wheaton is a valuable, exciting and justifiable undertaking,” Burden wrote in an email.
Reviewed by individual scientists, as well as panels that consist of nearly 10 to 20 chemistry professionals who come from academia, federal laboratories and NSF staff, the proposal was then evaluated within two categories, one titled “Intellectual Merit” and the other called “Broader Impacts.”
The research program, which includes much work that has already been published in previous years, now consists of the Burdens and their nine students, as they explore a series of chemical additions to alpha hemolysin, a nanopore-forming protein. The professors’ proposal for the grant that they received is to modify the cap of the protein in order to see how it affects its ability to work. According to an abstract of this research proposal on the National Science Foundation’s website, potential applications of this research include ion and small molecule sensing, polymer characterization, DNA sequencing and biomedical analyses.
“Most of the research in our group revolves around a specific toxin from Staph bacteria, and we have the techniques and expertise to make that toxin protein — in the absence of the bacteria that produces the toxin in nature — here in the lab, and we can make modifications of it, like changing a single amino acid to a different amino acid to see how it might affect the function of the toxin,” Keranen-Burden explained. “The most recent work that we got funding for was to make … more … drastic changes to the outer surface of the toxin, and see how that affects its function.”
While the applications are not immediately clear, the professors have speculated on what the ramifications of their work might be.
“Do we know exactly what they are? No. Can we speculate? Yes. There’s a whole host of things it could be, but the idea is to do something creative and see what happens as a result, and maybe it will have applications, maybe it won’t. There’s a little bit of risk with any basic science that you do,” Dan Burden said.
In their research, the two professors and their students have all taken on important roles. Burden explained that, within the big picture of the research, there are chemically oriented projects, biologically oriented projects and computer oriented projects that all come together to interact with one another, with each student bringing a certain knowledge of a particular orientation with them.
“The students participate in every aspect of the research,” Keranen-Burden said. “When the students join the lab, there are a set of techniques that we of course need to familiarize them with, and even a body of literature that is helpful for them to understand, but they do every aspect of the experiment. … They’re an integral part of the work — it’s not that they’re just learning from what we do, but we’re learning from what they do, as well.”
While the research may yield many new discoveries, Burden explained that the Christian subculture can sometimes have a more difficult time understanding the “breadth of intellectual exploration” in regards to this type of scientific research. “A lot of questions that I get, especially from the GenChem students, are ‘Why are Christians even interested in this kind of thing?’ It’s not obviously or explicitly Christian in any way, so it’s just not what people think of when they think of Wheaton College, for whatever reason,” Burden explained. “We both feel really strongly that all of God’s creation is something to explore, and even ways that we participate in modifying God’s creation. Really, what we are doing here is a type of creative activity that we are called to do as Christians.”
When asked how they felt about receiving this grant, Burden said, “We feel exceedingly blessed to receive this award. When we received the news from NSF that we would be funded, I immediately ran to the store and purchased party supplies!” Burden continued to explain that he and his wife celebrated with their nine research students in a time of excitement, thanksgiving and prayer. “Without this award to pay for supplies, stipends and institutional overhead, we would not be able to fully practice the intellectual passions God has given us, alongside Wheaton students,” Burden said.