By Merrick Bush-Pirkle
What if you could design a microscopic particle to harness the power of the sun? Or locate the right molecule out of millions to cure deadly diseases? And what if you could create cancer-eating enzymes as voracious and single-minded as PacMan?
Save the world, you say?
Not quite, but it's a start. Even our earliest ancestors had to rub a lot of sticks before making fire, but once they did, it sparked human innovation. And in the case of three SF State faculty members, whose research is illuminating fresh avenues of scientific inquiry, it is the promise of new science that earned Assistant Professors Rahul Singh, Teaster Baird Jr. and Associate Professor Andrew Ichimura the National Science Foundation's most prestigious award for tenure-track professors: The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant.
"It is unusual for a comprehensive university to receive three awards in one year," says Elizabeth VanderPutten, CAREER coordinator for the National Science Foundation. "Typically, you'll see one, perhaps two. If you're not a large research institution, it's difficult to have both an innovative research plan and a strong, integrated education plan. It shows that San Francisco State is committed to both."
The NSF CAREER-awarding committee first recognized the merit of scholarly work at SF State in 1996, when it awarded Leticia Marquez-MagaÃ±a the University's first CAREER award, and the impact was profound.
Before this year's trio of awards -- the most received by any CSU campus in a given year -- only three other SF State faculty had received CAREER grants (Ed Lank, 2005; Eric Hsu, 2004; and Zheng-Hui He, 2000). And of the nine CSU campuses that have received 28 grants since the program was launched in 1994, SF State's total ranks a close second, with seven awards.
Aside from its prestige in the world of academic research, the grant is unusual on several levels: It is one of the few research grants that explicitly requires the integration of research and education; it provides five consecutive years of financial support to an early career faculty in tenure-track positions; and the monetary award ranges from $500,000 to more than $1 million.
"Because of our location we can hire superstar faculty, but we can't always afford the tools they need to do world-class research," explains Professor Sheldon Axler, dean of the College of Science and Engineering. "The CAREER grant provides resources for faculty to function at an extremely high scientific level. They can hire lab technicians or postdoctoral researchers and purchase equipment that would otherwise be too expensive for us."
By all accounts, Assistant Professor Rahul Singh was already a scientific success when he traded his corporate key card for a lab full of college students. As a leader in the emerging field of bioinformatics, he developed software systems to manage the explosion of biological data being catalogued in cyberspace -- things like proteins and molecules -- the type of raw material scientists sift through daily to create new weapons against disease. Singh found that advancements in computer technology were falling behind those in biotechnology, hampering scientific discovery.
"Let's say you want to design a better drug to fight malaria," explains Singh. "With a repository of 10 to 15 million molecules, current technology makes it tedious, almost guesswork. But if you could design a query program where you ?ask' the computer to search for a specific type of molecule, you could create a cheaper, more efficient drug-discovery process."
The schism between computer science and biotechnology is a relatively new phenomenon, says Singh, one he believes can be addressed in academia.
"There is greater intellectual freedom here," says Singh, who joined SF State in 2004 and quickly established a productive research lab where students from computer science and biochemistry work side by side on award-winning projects. "You can propose brave, even unconventional ideas in the pursuit of new science."
But, he stresses, striking scientific gold is not enough.
"We must teach students to think in an interdisciplinary way because this is the future of science," says Singh, who last year received SF State's prestigious Presidential Scholar Award for excellence in research. "We need to create a new generation of scientists, especially in this field."
The half-million-dollar CAREER grant will enable Singh to design new courses in bioinformatics, bring the science into underserved high schools throughout the San Francisco Unified School District, and provide graduate students with valuable teaching experience.
Like Singh, Associate Professor Andrew Ichimura's line of scientific inquiry involves seeing the grand scale of small things, but instead of living molecules, Ichimura studies inorganic chemicals called "zeolites."
Up close -- very, very close -- these porous, crystalline materials look like tiny swatches of loose macramÃ©, with their weave of small holes and symmetrical patterns. Too small to see with the naked eye, they nonetheless have the power to transform oil into gasoline and turn hard water to soft. One day they may even be used to create photovoltaic cells (energy-efficient batteries charged by the sun), showing that even an inorganic chemical the size of a pinprick has the capacity to go green.
"This is a very different research track than what zeolites are typically used for," says Ichimura. "Our data suggests the potential for much broader application."
It's the promise of this new science, Ichimura believes, that earned him the CAREER award, but he's quick to add that the grant's educational component is no small matter.
"Several years ago, nanotechnology was all the rage; it was going to be the next big thing in science," says Ichimura, "and then it sort of fell off the radar. It seems to be hitting its stride again, and I want to expose students to it -- show how cool it is."
Toward that end, Ichimura's $589,000 grant will enable him to design and teach a course in nanoscience, round out his lab with state-of-the-art equipment, and expand the undergraduate chemistry curriculum to include novel experiments in nanoscience. The grant will also provide stipends for graduate students and increase opportunities for students to present research at national conferences.
"It's not enough to simply do the research," says Ichimura, who joined SF State in 2001 and recently earned tenure. "To become successful scientists, students need to communicate their results outside the lab by presenting their findings at national scientific meetings. The scope of the science can be overwhelming for first-time presenters, but the enthusiasm for science at meetings is infectious."
Diamonds in the Rough
How do you get a protein to realize its potential? To fight diseases like cancer or Alzheimer's instead of digesting last night's meatloaf? If you're Assistant Professor Teaster Baird Jr., you coax from its raw state a new version of itself, one that can do just about anything.
Not surprisingly, given a career path built on realizing and fostering his own potential, Baird approaches teaching the same way he does research: Whether working with protein structures or a lab full of students, his aim is to expose inherent promise and shape it.
"One of the reasons I came to SF State is that real value is placed on teaching, in addition to research," says Baird, an African-American biochemist who this year also received a National Institutes of Health grant to help prepare underrepresented minority students for careers in biomedical research. "The campus is more diverse than any other I've been on, and the majority of students are eager to learn."
Baird's research involves altering the structure of a digestive protein, or "protease," called trypsin, and programming it to be more selective about what cells it chooses to "cut."
"If you can design a protease to target, say, the proteins involved with cancer," explains Baird, "you can stop its progression. The same could be applied to almost any disease."
Although the spectrum of science may be different, Baird shares with his fellow CAREER awardees a strong, integrated teaching component and a comprehensive outreach plan. Working with science teachers at Phillip and Sala Burton Academic High, a school closely aligned with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Baird will provide equipment and expertise to enhance the high school's curriculum and introduce basic biochemistry experiments, like DNA analysis, into the mix. Additionally, he has designed a paid summer internship program that will allow eligible high school students to conduct research with SF State undergraduate and graduate students on campus. His grant of $825,000 will go far in supporting this endeavor.
"One of the reasons there are so few minority scientists is that they simply don't have role models," says Baird. "We want to show these kids what it would be like to do research as a college student, show them that it's possible."
He stresses, however, that the program is not designed exclusively for students already motivated to enter careers in science. Like the proteins he pursues in the laboratory, Baird says he is "always looking for that diamond in the rough."
Three for Three
According to a recent National Science Foundation report, SF State ranks first nationwide in the number of biological science undergrads who go on to earn doctoral degrees, and the Research Corporation's "Academic Excellence Sourcebook" ranks SF State number one among comprehensive universities for total grants received in the biological and physical sciences. Dean Axler believes this ranking reflects the value SF State places on the integration of research and teaching, a commitment this year's CAREER awards reinforce.
"There are three things we emphasize in our college," he explains. "First, you have to be an excellent teacher, intellectually alive, and the best way to do that is to have an active research program.
"Second, science changes rapidly. If our research faculty are not learning anything new in five years, their field will surpass them. We want them teaching our students what's going on today -- right now -- in science.
"And finally, our students are not going to learn science by simply sitting in a classroom listening to a lecture; they need to be doing the science. We want to make sure our faculty are incorporating their research into the teaching environment."
For the record, though, there is something more at stake, say the faculty, something that isn't rated and measured in the realm of award giving, but nonetheless is of great value to them.
"One of the reasons I joined San Francisco State is that it epitomizes the word ?university,'" says Singh. "At the core is the word ?universal'; it is open to all types of students. Not just to the academic elite, but to average students with promise, from all walks of life. This is where you get the opportunity to make a difference in the world. This is where you have an impact."