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September 21, 2004

Smith Biology Professor Receives $1.2 Million Research Grant from National Science Foundation

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. – As part of a five-year collaborative grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Laura A. Katz, associate professor of biological sciences at Smith College, was awarded $1.2 million to embark on a research project on the evolutionary history of microbial cells. The proposed research is likely to contribute to wide-ranging innovations in human health care, environmental stewardship and in establishing biological principles.

With the NSF funds, Katz will lead a research team at Smith, including numerous undergraduates, in the close examination of the evolutionary relationships among 200 eukaryotic microbes. (Eukaryotic cells, which contain nuclei, are distinguished from bacterial cells, which lack nuclei.) Although we are most familiar with larger eukaryotes, such as plants, animals and fungi, the bulk of eukaryotic diversity is comprised of the microbial organisms that will be the subject of the proposed research.

Katz’s project is the largest evolutionary study of eukaryotic microbes to date and NSF will invest a total of $3 million distributed among members of the research team
Katz is the lead investigator on the project, which includes collaborators David J. Patterson,of Marine Biology Laboratories in Woods Hole, Mass.; Donald E. Burgess of the American Type Culture Collection, a bio-resource center in Manassas, Va.; and Debashish Bhattacharya and John Logsdon, both of the department of biological sciences at the University of Iowa.

Many human diseases, including malaria and amoebic dysentery, are caused by eukaryotic microbes. As Katz explains, “understanding the evolutionary history of disease-causing microbes will yield important insights as physicians choose among drugs to treat disease.”

Also, the bulk of the production of earth’s oxygen is derived from microbial activity in oceans. Katz’s research will illuminate the biological diversity of these microbes. Her study will also shed new light on cellular innovations that arose during the evolution of life on earth

Most of Katz’s research on eukaryotic cells will take place in her laboratory in Burton Hall on the Smith campus. She is fortunate, she says, that the college already owns most of the equipment necessary for molecular studies of microbial cells.

Katz involves numerous undergraduate students in her research and teaches courses on microbiology, evolutionary biology and biological diversity. The proposed research will enhance the experiences of undergraduates at Smith through both classroom and laboratory experiences

Katz is also the recipient of two other NSF grants. In 2001, she received a five-year, $412,000 CAREER Award from the foundation, given to junior faculty members to support early career development. And in 2002 she received a three-year $217,600 collaborative grant to study microbial diversity in oceans

Smith’s leadership in science education is broadly acknowledged. One in four Smith women majors in the sciences, a rate that is three times the national average. For seven consecutive decades, Smith has ranked in the top 2 percent of 914 four-year colleges in the number of graduates who have gone on to receive doctorates in science.

Smith College is consistently ranked among the nation’s foremost liberal arts colleges. Enrolling 2,800 students from every state and 60 other countries, Smith is the largest undergraduate women’s college in the country.

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