Duke Mag-Recognizing Young Researchers-Jul/Aug 2002-Gazette

August 1, 2002
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Recognizing Young Researchers • In Brief

Recognizing Young Researchers

Steven Cummer, an engineer, uses lightning discharges as tools to probe an under-studied region of Earth's atmosphere. Michael Fitzgerald, a chemist, develops a better method to measure the stability of proteins. John Klingensmith, a medical researcher, studies the roles of two genes in molecular pathways that regulate the structural development of the head and face. James Tulsky, an internist, works to improve the quality of life for dying patients.

All four are Duke faculty and were among sixty in the nation who visited the White House in July to be honored for their 2001 Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), a special recognition for young, federally funded investigators. Begun by President Clinton, the PECASE program provides additional recognition for a select group of researchers whose projects are deemed of greatest benefit to their funding agencies' missions.

Cummer, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Duke's Pratt School, received his award in recognition of his ionosphere study proposal that drew $414,000 in support from the National Science Foundation. Cummer uses a radio receiver and antenna in Duke Forest to detect and analyze long-distance lightning discharges and associated "sprites"--ghostly, glowing phenomena that are linked to lightning discharges--at extremely low radio frequencies that are strongly reflected by the lower ionosphere. Such detection ability makes lightning a natural probe into one of the least-understood regions of the upper atmosphere.

The lower ionosphere is a region too low to be studied by orbiting satellites, but too high for weather balloons, he says. The military has built gigantic low-frequency radio transmitters and antennae for communications purposes that can bounce these waves off the ionosphere. For scientific studies, scientists have mostly used rocket probes that are very localized in space and time. "But lightning is perfect because it radiates strongly at exactly the right frequencies," he says. "So, during a period when there are ten different storms over the U.S. at one time, we can probe the ionosphere along every single one of those paths between the source and the receiver to answer important questions about the variability of the upper atmosphere."

Fitzgerald, an assistant professor of chemistry, was honored for developing and applying a quicker and more sensitive method for measuring the thermodynamic stability of proteins in their "folded" forms. Proteins fold within their natural watery environments from string-like molecules into complex, three-dimensional shapes that enable them to do their jobs as biological catalysts and structural molecules. "The majority of proteins need to be in their folded state to perform their biological function," says Fitzgerald. "Stability measurements are a very important research tool when you're trying to understand how proteins fold."

The traditional measurement methods involve time-consuming optical detection techniques that require large amounts of highly purified protein. Fitzgerald's approach, funded by $530,000 from the National Science Foundation, uses a technique called mass spectrometry to record the molecular weight of proteins under specific conditions that ultimately permit their stability to be measured. With the new method, "we should be able to make measurements in minutes compared to hours," he says.

Klingensmith, an assistant professor of cell biology, was cited for his basic research in developmental biology that is contributing to understanding birth defects, primarily those involving the head and face. His work could lead to gene testing and therapy to prevent birth defects or possibly to new treatments for birth defects. A developmental geneticist who specializes in the emergence of craniofacial and neural tube defects during gestation, he has identified in his research in mice two genes, called Chordin and Noggin, that play critical roles in that emergence.

Klingensmith's award stems from a $1.7-million National Institutes of Health grant focusing on those two genes, which are known to regulate Bone Morphogenic Proteins (BMP), a family of protein signals that have potent effects on craniofacial development. "Our primary goal is to understand the mechanisms of human birth defects," he says. "Much of our research is designed to reveal the key steps in head formation, and to elucidate the molecular basis of craniofacial birth defects."

Tulsky, a general internist at the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center and an associate professor of medicine at the Duke, was nominated by the Department of Veteran Affairs for his research on the quality of life at the end of life. Funded by two grants from the VA totaling $550,000, his research is designed to define the attributes of a "good" death--one that eases the transition for the patient--and to create a method to measure the quality of life for dying patients. At the Durham VA Medical Center, he directs the Program on the Medical Encounter and Palliative Care. At Duke Medical Center, he is a physician in ambulatory care and associate director of the Duke Institute on Care at the End of Life. Tulsky's research has shown there is no one definition of "a good death" and that wide disagreement exists about the importance of such issues as dying at home and the use of life-sustaining treatments.