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The National Science Foundation has bestowed a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award on Assistant Professor Karen M. McGinnis, a molecular biologist and geneticist whose work since she joined The Florida State University faculty in 2008 reflects both her passion for research and her commitment to training the next generation of scientists.

"The CAREER Award is an exceptional recognition of exceptional qualities in a young scientist," said biologist Joseph Travis, dean of Florida State's College of Arts and Sciences. "The NSF reserves this honor for high-potential researchers dedicated to the integration of research and education and capable of becoming the academic leaders of the 21st century."

McGinnis will receive $1,056,978 from the NSF over the next five years to delve deeper into the big questions of how gene expression is controlled and how the controls are themselves inherited.

She will seek the answers in corn — specifically, maize. Besides advancing the field of genetics in crucial ways, knowledge gained from the study could help to improve various traits and yield better harvests of the plant, an agriculturally vital U.S. crop.

Above all, the funding will enable McGinnis to further involve Florida State students in cutting-edge science research at the undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral levels.

"Every experiment in this project will be conducted by postdoctoral, graduate, and undergraduate trainees," wrote McGinnis in her proposal to the NSF. "Emphasis will be placed on excellence in preparation for scientific careers and in mentoring young scientists for success."

"For Karen this award supports a more ambitious project than a typical research award would, and the recognition that comes with it will make scientists far and wide notice and look for her work," Travis said.

"For Florida State, the award draws attention to the young faculty members in our outstanding biological science department and, in conjunction with similar awards to peers in other departments, shows the nation just how strong our institution's faculty truly is," he said. "It also shines additional light on our commitment to provide unmatched research opportunities for students at all levels, in all disciplines."

In addition to her planned research activities with Florida State students, McGinnis will participate in the university's existing programs for pre-college students statewide who are considering science careers.

She also will work with undergraduates who aspire to become K-12 science teachers.

"It is amazing to receive this level of support from the National Science Foundation for the development of my research program and educational goals over the next five years," McGinnis said. "Now, I can lead a series of experiments that will allow us to continue and expand my laboratory's ongoing research on gene expression in maize.

"The goal of those experiments is to determine how gene expression is regulated by what we call 'epigenetic factors' — factors other than the actual sequence of genes," she said.

During gene expression in living organisms, DNA sequences get converted into RNA messenger molecules, and then into proteins and other molecules that create the physical characteristics, or phenotype, of the organism. If gene expression isn't properly regulated, it disturbs development, and can cause a wide range of diseases and disorders.

"In my lab, we study different ways that DNA and RNA interact to regulate gene expression, and how these relationships influence the organization and modification of DNA in the nucleus of cells, which can also, in turn, influence gene expression," McGinnis said. "All of this has the potential to become a preserved characteristic of the genetic information of the cell, and to become part of the information that is inherited, by maize and by other living organisms, from one generation to the next."

McGinnis earned her doctoral degree in 2000 from Arizona State University. She has served as a postdoctoral scientist with the United States Department of Agriculture in Washington State, and as an assistant research scientist at the University of Arizona.

Florida State hired McGinnis in 2008 as part of a cluster of world-class scientists for the Department of Biological Science's then-new "Integrating Genotype and Phenotype" initiative. Research led by the scientists is aimed at better understanding the mechanisms underlying inheritance and evolution of organisms and the ways in which those processes connect to overall appearance and behavior. The "IGP" cluster is a key part of the university's ongoing "Pathways of Excellence" initiative.

"Karen has been a superb addition to our faculty," said FSU Professor P. Bryant Chase, chairman of the biological science department. "She is highly deserving of the recognition and opportunities that go along with an NSF CAREER Award. What's more, she is also one of the few young scientists whose proposal to the NSF managed to win this hard-to-get honor the first time around."

Visit the McGinnis laboratory Web site at www.bio.fsu.edu/mcginnislab to learn more about the research already under way there.

By Libby Fairhurst

 
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