National Science Foundation Grant to Help Colby and Partner Institutions Unravel Unknowns in Cell Division

Related Initiatives Will Also Impact Undergraduate Teaching and Learning

When Christina Cota joined the Colby faculty as an assistant professor of biology in September 2019, she was intent upon establishing a research project that would both explore fundamental questions in cell biology and provide key laboratory experience for Colby students. But first she needed a key piece of equipment: a confocal microscope. It’s a device that allows researchers to generate and capture high-resolution, 3-D images of cells, with sub-cellular resolution in intact and living tissues. With support from her department and Colby’s Kresge Foundation Science Equipment Fund, she obtained a state-of-the-art LSM 900 model within a few months. This spring, just a little over a year later, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Colby a three-year, $700,000 grant that will enable Cota to embark on the project, which is a collaboration with Princeton University and Swarthmore College. Investigators at the three partner institutions will examine some of the cellular and sub-cellular processes that are critical to understanding diseases such as cancer. In addition, the NSF funding will enhance academic and career preparation for Colby students, help postdoctoral scientists become skilled teachers of undergraduates, and foster opportunities for students from underrepresented groups to pursue studies and careers in the sciences.

Professor Cota in the F.W. Olin Science Center.

Cota’s story illustrates how different kinds of investments at different stages along the way are necessary to bring complex aspirations to fruition. This is the essence of Dare Northward: one grant or funding opportunity builds upon and reinforces another, with all doing their part to fulfill the mission and priorities of the College.

The project, which is set to begin this summer, came together so quickly because Colby and the biology department had faith in the project and supported it through investment in both the microscope and related infrastructure upgrades. “When you’re supported, you can do a lot, and you can do it fast,” said Cota. 

An Exciting Avenue of Research
Cota and her fellow investigators at Princeton and Swarthmore will use the NSF funding to study the activity of mitotic kinases, a group of proteins that work as choreographers, telling other proteins what to do—and when to do it—during cell division.

 “The development of new treatments and interventions for complex diseases like cancer are often limited by our understanding of the basic biology of cells,” Cota said. “By gaining a better understanding of the processes associated with something as fundamental to our cells as how they divide, we also gain a better understanding of what goes wrong when these processes ultimately fail.” 

At Colby Cota and her student researchers will examine cell division in the embryos of Ciona robusta, a marine filter-feeding organism known to non-scientists as a sea squirt. These conveniently translucent organisms are ideal for the study because they are evolutionarily related to humans but with a smaller genome and because their development is fast and highly predictable. After fertilizing the embryos in a petri dish of saltwater, researchers will start the clock, knowing that in six to seven hours they’ll be able to spot the heart founder cell—the focus of their experiment. At specific phases during the process of its cell division, they will introduce inhibitors to arrest the choreography of one of those mitotic kinases, thus freezing those moments in time. 

Researchers will then preserve the embryos with a fixative and use fluorescent tags to label the proteins and cell structures. At this point, that special microscope becomes absolutely essential. “The LSM 900 laser scanning confocal microscope makes it possible to explore what is happening inside of cells. Being able to observe cells in their natural environment is critical for understanding complex processes that are dependent on interactions with other cells and their environment,” said Cota.

The Princeton team, under the guidance of Associate Professor Danelle Davenport, will pursue similar experiments in mouse cells, allowing researchers to begin to assess whether what they see happening in Ciona robusta cells also happens in other organisms. Swarthmore’s research team, under the guidance of Associate Professor Brad Davidson, will expand on this line of inquiry, conducting experiments in both types of cells.  

Colby students working in Professor Cota’s lab.

Creating Opportunities for Colby Students
The NSF-funded research project will create a range of opportunities for Colby students—starting with the chance to use that laser-scanning microscope, which is more often used by graduate students. “Colby prioritizes training undergraduates, and as a result they get to use these specialized pieces of equipment as undergraduates, allowing them to develop technical skills that others may not have,” said Cota.

Colby students will have the opportunity to work with, and learn from, the investigators at the other institutions. They will meet initially over Zoom and communicate via email, but the expectation is that collaborators will meet in person eventually, and further forge institutional ties that go beyond the term of the three-year grant. “The hope among all of the partners is that this is just the start of a longer-term collaboration between our labs and institutions,” said Cota.

In addition to participating in the main research, students will have opportunities to do their own independent spin-off projects during the course of the academic year. The grant also funds a total of nine student research assistant positions over the next three summers. It’s impossible to overstate the value of these experiences for undergraduates. Conducting their own experiments and discussing their findings with their advisors and peers fosters a deeper appreciation for the research process and more complete understanding of associated topics. Research also leads to student authorship on publications and participation at scientific conferences, which are key opportunities to engage with researchers outside of the College. When students leave Mayflower Hill, both their research experience and professional engagement can be crucial to obtaining jobs and gaining admission to graduate programs. Meanwhile the visibility of these high-achieving students raises Colby’s profile as an institution that provides outstanding academic and career preparation for its graduates.

Supporting Impactful Outreach Initiatives
The NSF grant features an outreach component that enables Colby, Princeton, and Swarthmore to pilot new initiatives and expand or enhance existing programs. For example, the Colby Achievement Program in the Sciences (CAPS) provides hands-on research experiences to incoming Colby students from groups that traditionally have been underrepresented in the sciences. Princeton and Swarthmore have similar programs, and with funding from the grant the three institutions will integrate their efforts to enhance research opportunities and provide mentoring for these students. Also planned is the development of a class on cell division for elementary school students in an underserved school district as part of Swarthmore’s Science for Kids summer program.

“First and foremost, we see ourselves as educators,” said Cota. “And we feel a sense of responsibility to educate and to ensure equity, to ensure that underrepresented groups—or students who come from educational environments that don’t have a lot of opportunities—benefit.” Describing herself as passionate about undergraduate teaching, Cota is thrilled to use the NSF funding to develop a pilot program to bring Princeton postdoctoral scientists to Colby for formal training in undergraduate teaching through the Colby Center for Teaching and Learning. In return, these postdocs will teach Jan Plan classes at Colby, expanding course offerings beyond the expertise of the full-time faculty.

Colby student conducting research with Professor Cota.

It Takes Big Thinkers
Cota knows that this research project and all of its outreach components would not have come about if Colby were not a forward-thinking institution that was—from the beginning—open to her ideas for contributing to scientific knowledge and improving undergraduate teaching and learning. “People at Colby are big thinkers,” she said. “I can see that Colby has a vision for where it wants to be, and that that is better, stronger, and closer to the community—yet with a further reach than it has now. Critically, Colby is investing in that vision: investing in students, in faculty, and the community in ways that will have lasting impacts, but that also reap immediate rewards.”