Georgia Gwinnett College is awarded $249K chemistry faculty grant from the National Science Foundation 

Dr. Simon Mwongela, Dr. Ajay Mallia, Dr. Sairam Tangirala and Dr. Neville Forlemu’s research earned a $249,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

Dr. Simon Mwongela, Dr. Ajay Mallia, Dr. Sairam Tangirala and Dr. Neville Forlemu’s research earned a $249,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. 

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Georgia Gwinnett College’s School of Science and Technology faculty members a $249,000 grant to fund groundbreaking undergraduate research that could lead to new chemical products like insecticides and antibiotics that have a more benign environmental impact.

The Chemistry division of the NFS bestowed the award under its Research in Undergraduate Institutions (RUI) program, which only funded 19 awards in the fiscal year ending in September and is the only RUI award made to any institution in the state of Georgia this year.

“GGC is in very good company, with many outstanding institutions with very active undergraduate research programs represented in the list,” said Dr. Charles Pibel, GGC associate dean and associate professor of chemistry. “This confirms that our faculty are creative, talented researchers on par with faculty at some of the most selective, elite colleges in the country.”

Dr. Neville Forlemu, associate professor of chemistry, serves as the principal investigator for the project, with fellow associate professors of chemistry Dr. Simon Mwongela and Dr. Ajay Mallia teaming up with Dr. Sairam Tangirala, associate professor of physics, as co-principal investigators.

Dr. Simon Mwongela, Dr. Ajay Mallia, Dr. Sairam Tangirala and Dr. Neville Forlemu

The team’s research focuses on how cyclotides interact with lipid bilayers, which surround cells.

“This NSF RUI award is important to our team as it is validation of hard work, perseverance and the culture of research that we are building at GGC,” said Forlemu. “I am particularly honored that many GGC students and our team will be involved in the advancement of knowledge on understanding the structure, function and impact of cyclotides, a project that has been close to my heart for some time now.”

The title of the project is “Extraction, Purification and Characterization of the Interaction Between Cyclotide and Cyclotide Aggregates with Lipid Bilayers,” which Pibel said is a fancy way of saying they are studying the behavior of cyclotides, a potentially useful class of proteins that have exceptional stability to degradation. The GGC researchers hope to develop a better understanding of how the cyclotide molecules work while simultaneously developing better methods for extraction of natural products from plant-based materials.

Cyclotides are made in nature and take on additional importance because many of them show interesting chemical activity, like the possession of insecticidal and antibacterial properties.

“This is interesting because, say having an insecticide that is protein or peptide-based could lead to an insecticide that does not have a long lifetime in the environment,” said Pibel. “This was the problem with DDT. It was incredibly stable and would accumulate in the environment. Similar benefits would arise from antibacterial molecules with a short lifetime. One of the problems with bacteria developing resistance to antibiotics is due to the antibiotics having relatively long lifetimes in the environment.”

Forlemu said he’s excited to get to work to mentor and engage GGC students, and that he’s particularly happy some of the research hurdles like materials, equipment cost and student compensations will be solved by the grant.

Cyclotide activity with different lipid bilayers

Understanding cyclotide activity with different lipid bilayers (that protect cells) can pave our way to a future of eco-friendly pesticides and antimicrobial peptides.

“This award encourages me to continue to share my love for research with our students, especially first-generation college students and economically disadvantaged and underprivileged students who we intend to engage in this work,” he said. “The interdisciplinary nature of the work combining organic synthesis, characterization with spectroscopic techniques and molecular details from computational simulations will provide our students with a breadth of knowledge and skills that will enhance their economic competitiveness once they graduate.”

Forlemu said the award is also a reminder to the community that scholarship and creativity are not only buzz words, but core values instilled in GGC students through rigorous and collaborative projects like this one.

“We are a diverse campus, and this project was initiated by a diverse group of faculty with the sole goal of getting students interested in STEM fields and developing research skills and problem solving skills critical for career opportunities,” he said.

Pibel agreed, adding this was one of the first submissions to the RUI program by GGC faculty and is the very first NSF award made to GGC under that program. He said it proves GGC faculty can be competitive for these awards, but the main impact will be on the students.

“All of the faculty who engage in this research work with undergraduate student colleagues,” said Pibel. “Students will have opportunities to work on important problems, present their work at scientific conferences, publish the results of their research in peer-reviewed publications, and meet with colleagues across the world who are conducting similar kinds of research.

“Undergraduate research has shown, time and again, to be a particularly high-impact practice for undergraduate education. Our students who participate in this research will have doors opened for them and, thus, will be better positioned to be competitive for admission to top graduate programs or employment in their field.

I anticipate we will see many more of these awards in the years to come.”

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