Contreras Wins National Science Foundation CAREER Award

Head Shot of Professor Lydia Contreras

Assistant Professor Lydia Contreras recently received a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award for her proposal titled “Mapping Regulatory Networks in Extremophiles,” which could help determine how cells respond to environmental changes and survive high-stress conditions.

The grant will further Contreras’ research to characterize and understand large-scale networks within a cell. Her work looks at how a cell performs functions and incorporates how it interacts with other components internally and with the environment.

Contreras specifically studies extremophiles, or cells that can exist and thrive in extreme environments and perform special, often useful, functions. For example, her team is working with extremophiles that can absorb high levels of radiation.  Knowledge of how these extremophiles perform special functions can be used to clean up toxic waste.

Previous research in this field focused on individual components to determine how a cell functions, looking at narrowly defined parts of cells. Contreras’ approach to study whole cell networks will provide a better, fundamental overview of cell function.

“There are entire networks we are missing out on,” Contreras said. “You may not get the function if you pull parts out of a network and study them outside of the cell.”

The CAREER award provides grant-support to individuals early in their career who seek to integrate research and education.  In addition to her research, Contreras is organizing a Raising A Future Scientist program to attract and retain underrepresented students to engineering and developing a new course to present bioengineering in the context of significant world problems.

“The part of this award that is unique is highlighting education,” Contreras said. “I really take education and outreach seriously and enjoy these aspects of my job. About a third of the NSF CAREER proposal is how to innovate in the classroom and get students involved.”




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