Old Westbury, CSHL snag chunky NSF grants

Bigger is better: Geneticist Zachary Lippman and fellow CSHL researchers just got a big boost from the National Science Foundation.

High-profile plant-genetics at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and new-fangled teaching methods at SUNY-Old Westbury have earned National Science Foundation backing.

The NSF announced this week that professors at SUNY-Old Westbury have been awarded $296,189 to explore new inquiry-based methods of chemistry instruction, while CSHL researchers have received a $4.6 million stipend to continue work on plant genomes, with new edible crops and increased yields as their ultimate goal.

Specifically, the $4,616,755 grant will help fund “Dissecting the Genomic Architecture of Functional Redundancy to Modulate Meristem Homeostasis and Crop Yields,” a project that builds on research by CSHL geneticists Zachary Lippman and Dave Jackson and incorporates work at the University of Massachusetts and the University of North Carolina.

The new funds will allow researchers to use a revolutionary genome-editing technique known as CRISPR – for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” – to understand how thousands of genes in plant genomes work together.

Lippman, Jackson et al will also use the genetic technique to generate “new crop varieties with increased yield, to benefit agriculture substantially,” according to a statement from CSHL.

Calvin Butts III: Brainy STEM.

Calvin Butts III: Brainy STEM.

Old Westbury’s six-figure grant is earmarked for the SUNY school’s Department of Chemistry and Physics, which will explore new ways to motivate undergraduate students to work independently and gain skills through inquiry-based laboratory work.

By focusing on “the learning occurring in our chemistry laboratories,” researchers can unlock potential improvements for science, technology, engineering and mathematics instruction on the collegiate level, according to SUNY-Old Westbury President Calvin Butts III.

“Preparing the next generation of researchers, physicians and scientists is a critical need as our nation and world continue to grow more complex,” Butts said in a statement. “With this funding, we will be able to test new, creative approaches for improving STEM learning and learning environments, focused on the learning occurring in our chemistry laboratories.”

The grant period, which runs through August 2019, will be spent bridging the gap between desired educational outcomes and current instructional practices, with the dual purposes of improving undergraduates’ understanding of scientific methodology and exploring how “team teaching” principles affect student engagement.

“Compared to traditional ‘cookbook-style’ laboratory experiences, which leave many students unacquainted with scientific methodology and argumentation, inquiry-based experiences provide a richer and more meaningful learning experience,” said Ruomei Gao, an associate chemistry professor at SUNY-Old Westbury and primary investigator for the NSF-funded project.

Gao is joined on the project by co-primary investigators Duncan Quarless Jr. and Judith Weinstein-Lloyd, both full professors of chemistry at SUNY-Old Westbury, and assistant professor Bright Emenike. The project will also be bolstered by the Old Westbury English Department and the college’s Writing Center, in an effort to “enhance student training on scientific writing,” the college said in a statement.

“Our objective is to study creative approaches for improving STEM learning and learning environments,” Gao said.

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