Understanding the creation of new nerve cells in adult brains while engaging more Maine college students in biomedical research is the focus of a $1 million, five-year National Science Foundation CAREER Award to Kristy Townsend, a University of Maine assistant professor of neurobiology.
The research focuses on adult neural plasticity and neurogenesis that is key to energy balance regulation. UMaine seniors will collaborate with Townsend to conduct original biomedical research for capstone projects. And in an outreach program and summer fellowship with community colleges and other underrepresented groups in Maine, additional students will be engaged in the research to increase their access to biomedical careers.
“Biotechnology and biopharma are two growing industries in Maine,” says Townsend, a UMaine alumna. “We need to be part of the pipeline that keeps this industry growing in Maine, encouraging students to stay here or come back here for their careers, which will also serve to enhance our own research here at UMaine.”
In early 2017, Townsend created a weeklong biomedical course for students from Southern Maine Community College. The course, which was offered again in January 2018, led to the initiation of the outreach program with community college and other underrepresented students in Maine, with the goal of increasing biomedical training and supporting community college students to transition to UMaine.
The new program will allow students statewide who normally would not easily gain access to biomedical research fellowships to apply to take part in a summer fellowship in Townsend’s lab. It also will allow UMaine graduate and undergraduate students to lead research seminars at the Maine community college schools and mentor peers transitioning to the university.
Earlier this year, Townsend also received two other national research awards. The National Institutes of Health awarded nearly $713,000 for a two-year study investigating brain-adipose communication and how peripheral nerves in fat tissue function. Townsend is interested in how the brain talks to fat tissue, because nerves are important for proper control of metabolic processes, as chemical and surgical denervation experiments in fat, or adipose tissue, have demonstrated. In addition, the American Heart Association awarded $750,000 for a three-year study looking at the aging of fat tissue and its effects on cardiovascular and metabolic conditions. Townsend, an expert on brain-adipose communication, energy balance regulation and cardiometabolic disease, is collaborating in the research with David Harrison, an expert on mechanisms of aging and a senior faculty member at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine.