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UW’s Sensory Biology Center Receives $10.5 Million COBRE Phase II NIH Grant

September 6, 2022
group of people posing outdoors
The University of Wyoming Sensory Biology Center (SBC) recently received a five-year, $10.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to advance research activities from 2022-27, which include exploring curing diseases. Administration and core faculty for the grant are, from left, Zhaojie Zhang, a senior research scientist of zoology and physiology; Qian-Quan Sun, director and principal investigator of the SBC and a professor of zoology and physiology and the UW Neuroscience Program; Parag Chitnis, vice president for research and economic development; Ken Gerow, a professor of mathematics and statistics; Mark Gomelsky, a professor of molecular biology; and Sreejay Nair, a professor in the School of Pharmacy. (UW Photo)

The University of Wyoming Sensory Biology Center (SBC) recently received a five-year, $10.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to advance research activities from 2022-27, which include exploring curing diseases.

The grant, which started Sept. 1 and runs through July 31, 2027, is a Phase II Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) program grant funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the NIH.

“The Phase II award is a new award that is intended to strengthen the Phase I center by further improvements to research infrastructure and the continuation of the development of a critical mass of investigators with shared scientific interests,” says Qian-Quan Sun, a UW professor in the Department of Zoology and Physiology and the UW Neuroscience Program. He also is the director and principal investigator of the SBC.

The primary mission of the SBC is to foster and conduct high-quality scientific research that advances the understanding of human sensory systems and disorders related to them. A major role of the center is to support and mentor the development of junior investigators of sensory system function and dysfunction.

Phase II of the SBC is composed of the Administrative Core, Integrated Microscopy Core (IMC) and four interrelated research projects.

The goals of the SBC under the Phase II grant are:

-- Work with UW’s Office of Academic Affairs to invest in four new hires across departments to make the SBC faculty more digital, more computational and more intelligent, the latter meaning the ability to recruit researchers in artificial intelligence and machine learning.

“Academic Affairs is pleased to provide these faculty lines in support of the continued growth of the SBC,” says Kevin Carman, UW’s provost and executive vice president. “The emphasis on computational science resonates wonderfully with our incipient School of Computing and our commitment to promote digital approaches and literacy across all of our research and academic programs.”

“These four positions will help contribute to the transformation of our workforce and strengthen our competitiveness,” Sun says.

-- The SBC’s research scope will be significantly expanded to address the most critical public health issues relevant to Wyoming for the 21st century, including aging and chronic diseases, and conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias; amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; developmental disorders that affect communication and behavior in children such as autism spectrum disorders; and recovery from spinal cord injuries.

“This exciting grant deploys interdisciplinary approaches to tackle some key challenges in human health and biology,” says Parag Chitnis, UW’s vice president for research and economic development.” Through the Phase II award, this impactful COBRE program continues to expand and enrich biomedical research capacity at the University of Wyoming.”

“This expansion of our research scope has already begun during the Phase I period, with several new hires working in these areas,” Sun says.

In addition to providing startup funds for the four new faculty hires, COBRE Phase II grant funds will be used to fund research projects led by current UW junior faculty members; provide pilot and development grants to support sensory biology-related basic and translational projects; and continue funding the IMC’s instrumentation, operations and personnel.

“These activities are coordinated and managed by an administrative core that will oversee all activities and organize mentoring activities such as grant workshops, research seminars and conferences,” Sun says.

Using the Phase II grant funds, the SBC also plans to hire 10 UW graduate students, four full-time support staff and a dozen part-time staff, he adds.

“As the only COBRE center associated with UW and the state of Wyoming, the SBC has led the transformative changes in the landscape of sensory biology research and biomedical research in general,” Sun says. “We believe our most significant accomplishment during the Phase I period has been the promotion of the research competitiveness of junior faculty members. All five initial project leaders from Phase I achieved independence with NIH/National Science Foundation funding.”

From 2017-2022, Phase I COBRE project leaders brought in an additional 23 individual external grants worth more than $10 million and published 84 research articles in journals.

Phase I COBRE funds also allowed the SBC to revitalize its microscopy core facility, which is now a state-of-the-art facility known as the IMC, with expanded function in genomic and transcriptomic analysis. The IMC is now a federal government-listed core facility that serves more than 50 labs across campus.

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