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With $1.5M in NSF Funding, Holy Cross Professor Makes Student Research Opportunities a Priority

October 15th, 2015 by 

Tom Rettig

For Kenneth Mills, professor of chemistry at Holy Cross, standing with his students — whether in the lab or at national conferences — is an essential part of his vocation.

“It is important that students see their faculty as active scholars alongside them,” he says. “I want to make sure that what we are asking them to do in the teaching and research labs is an authentic experience.”

Mills was recently awarded a three-year $748,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to continue his research on protein splicing and the structure and stability of thermophilic inteins. This funding falls in line with a series of uninterrupted grants from the NSF — totaling more than $1.5 million — in support of his research. Mills, who received the Mary Louise Marfuggi Award for Outstanding Scholarship at Holy Cross in 2013, has continued making scientific strides right here on campus since joining the chemistry faculty and being named the co-chair of the biochemistry concentration in 2001.

In tandem with backing Mills’ research, the grant allows for the continuation of cutting-edge undergraduate research opportunities for students on campus. And for Mills, that is a priority. He has mentored more than 50 undergraduate students in his research lab during his 14 years at the College, which has produced 25 publications, many of which have included student co-authors and appeared in peer-reviewed publications.

Mills’ excellence in bringing the teacher-scholar model to life has not gone unnoticed. In 2015, he was named a Cottrell Scholar by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, which recognized him for the excellence and innovation in his research program and academic leadership skills.

We sat down with Mills to hear his perspective on the grant, his research, and how students fit into it all:

The grant’s impact: “The funding for the grant is a recognition of the hard work and accomplishments of my student researchers. It will allow us to purchase needed supplies, as well as fund summer research opportunities for Holy Cross undergraduates. My research students will be able to travel to national meetings of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology to present the results of their work—one of my students won a best poster competition  last year.”

Students as researchers: “Being at the interface of biology and chemistry, some research students start their experience not knowing how to use the basic tools of our research lab. However, over nine weeks in the summer all students are generating data and contributing to the labs’ projects. Students are very much involved with each stage of the “doing” of the project, each with their own hypothesis-driven research.”

The research, in a nutshell: “We are interested in studying enzymes from extremophiles. The enzymes we study are from archaebacteria that occupy unusual environments: deep sea thermal vents that are at high temperature and pressure in one case, or hypersaline lakes in another. These conditions would irreversibly damage proteins from humans or regular bacteria. We are interested in how the structures of these enzymes are stabilized and how they maintain activity under these conditions.

“The enzymes we study are inteins, which are proteins that interrupt other proteins. They catalyze their own removal from the flanking proteins and the ligation of the flanking proteins, much like a scene from a reel of film splicing itself out. We are interested in how this reaction works and if it could serve to regulate the activity of the interrupted proteins.”

A scholar and educator: “Having faculty members (and students) who are active scholars presenting the results of their work at national meetings and in the peer-reviewed literature of professional societies encourages students to be participants in science, and to be engaged in what is ‘now’ and ‘tomorrow,’ not just what has already made the textbooks.”

An invitation to explore: “Many students I work with in my lab are on the pre-health track and for some, the research experience reinforces that calling, while for others, it opens new paths. One former pre-health student reported back during medical school that his training in the lab helped him to think through challenging problems and patients in the wards. Others have continued to investigate various aspects of health in graduate school while training toward their Ph.D.’s in biochemistry.”

Advice for future scientists: “Don’t be afraid to take a risk: take the hard class, go abroad, get involved in research early, ask important questions. Great discoveries are made by those with the courage to risk failing.”

Related Information:

Visit the chemistry, biochemistry, and celebrating science web pages for more information.

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