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Chemistry Professor Awarded Prestigious NIH Grant for Protein Research

Kenneth Mills plans to use the money to continue collaborating with research partners and supporting student researchers
October 11th, 2019 by 

Kenneth Mills stands with students in his lab
Kenneth Mills works with students in a teaching lab. Photo by Tom Rettig

Kenneth Mills, professor of chemistry at College of the Holy Cross, was recently awarded a three-year $361,417 grant from the National Institutes of Health to continue his research on the protein splicing of organisms — called extremophiles — that live in harsh conditions on Earth.

Mills is no stranger to receiving significant grant money. From 2013-2017, he was awarded a series of uninterrupted grants from the National Science Foundation totaling more than $1.5 million to support his research.

We spoke with Mills about the applications of his research and how the infusion of grant money will benefit student-researchers.

Can you describe your research?
We study the mechanism of protein splicing — in particular, we study protein splicing in extremophiles, organisms that live in unusual environments. One such type of organism are halophiles, that live in very salty places, such as salterns or where sea water meets the shore. Another type of organism are thermophiles, that live in extremely hot locations, including deep sea thermal vents. We are interested in how these organisms have evolved to have proteins that can function at such extreme conditions.

What are the real-world applications of your work?
While all of science is the “real world” too, there are broader implications. One, it allows us to dissect principles that govern protein reactivity and structure. Two, if there were life to be found on another planet, such as in a subterranean salt lake on Mars or buried in a hot spring on an extraterrestrial moon, it would likely look like an extremophile; by understanding how such organisms work in the least hospitable places on earth, we might learn about how life would evolve on other planets. Three, understanding how enzymes can function at high pressure and/or temperature can be useful for industrial biotechnology applications.

What does having this grant money mean for your research?
The grant money allows us to purchase needed equipment and supplies, to work collaboratively with labs at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and the University of Connecticut and to fund student research opportunities. Professor Chunyu Wang at RPI is an expert on the study of protein structure and dynamics via nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. Professor Thane Papke is a microbiologist who specialized in the study of halophilic organisms, and our students will have the chance to work in his lab at the University of Connecticut.

How will this grant impact the students you work with?
The grant will fund three students in the lab each summer, in addition to other funded students. My lab currently has nine students: one senior, five juniors, two sophomores, and two first year students as part of the First Year Research Advancement Program, or FRAP.

Undergraduate research in the sciences trains students to identify important problems and collect and use data to analyze those problems, and then present them both orally and in writing. For example, students I work with usually travel to the national meeting of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and participate in the society’s poster session to share their research results. These critical thinking and presentation skills will serve them well in their future as scientists or doctors, or in whatever discipline they choose. They do much of the day-to-day work in the lab and it is exciting to have a hand in the development of the next generation of STEM experts.

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