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Virus Researcher Awarded Burroughs Wellcome PATH Grant

Doing the ‘Samba’: MSU awarded first PATH grant

Kristin Parent, a Michigan State University Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, or BMB, assistant professor and J.K. Billman, Jr. M.D. Endowed Research Professor, received a 2019 Burroughs Wellcome Fund Investigators in the Pathogenesis of Infections Disease, or PATH, award—a 5-year grant totaling $500,000 to study an enormous virus known as the Samba virus.

This marks the first time a professor from MSU has won the PATH award, one of the most prestigious and highly competitive grants funding research into human-pathogen interactions in the United States.

“The PATH grant proposal process takes over a year, including a pre-grant proposal, a written formal proposal and an in-person interview in North Carolina,” said Parent, who has applied for the PATH grant for three consecutive years. “When you get to the interview stage and meet all of the other scientists, you realize how many really talented folks are out there, so to be listed among them is a real honor.”

“We had gotten through several years of research and work on this project with minimal funding and brute force,” said BMB graduate student Jason Schrad, who has been working in the Parent lab for the last six years and whose thesis work is the nucleus of the successful grant proposal. “The PATH grant validates all those years of hard work and affirms that this is an important project.”

Founded in 1955, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund began supporting promising investigators who study pathogenesis with a focus on the interplay between human and microbial biology in 2000. The fund gives recipients the freedom to pursue new avenues of inquiry and higher-risk research projects that hold potential for advancing the understanding of how infectious diseases work.

“Appointment as a Burroughs Wellcome Investigator is among the highest honors for an early to mid-career researcher,” said Erich Grotewold, BMB chair. “We congratulate Kristin for this outstanding accomplishment and look forward to her continuing success as she joins a cohort of fellow awardees that includes several eminent scientists in the area of infectious diseases.”

Parent was the driving force behind MSU purchasing one of the most advanced cryo-electron microscopes available—the Talos Arctica—a specialized instrument that images frozen samples to provide atomic-level molecular structures. The cutting-edge technique is known as electron cryo-microscopy, or cryo-EM, a technique that computationally knits together hundreds of thousands of 2D images into 3D structures.

The PATH award, which officially begins July 1, will inject money into Parent’s cryo-EM research on the giant Samba virus’ never-before-seen mechanistic ability to attach and infect a host.

Parent will be able to use the PATH grant to progress techniques in cryo-EM, developing creative ways to image the giant viruses, uncovering the basic cellular biology of how the viruses work and advancing the scientific understanding of viruses’ core features along with basic science on how pathogens persist in extreme environments.

“The cryo-EM microscope is installed and is being fine-tuned,” Parent said. “When the new MSU Cryo-EM facility is fully functional with a new director, it will attract new faculty and be available to all researchers at MSU. “Receiving the PATH grant is transformative for the establishment of the facility, for our collaborators in Brazil, and for Jason’s and other graduate students’ futures as scientists.”

With support from the PATH grant, collaborator Juliana Reis Cortines, associate professor at Brazil’s Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, will be able to visit the Parent Lab and learn cryo-EM techniques.

For more information about the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and the 2019 PATH award winners, please visit the Burroughs Wellcome Fund PATH award page.

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