Biochemistry Professor Sarah Wacker Receives Grant from National Institutes of Health

The grant will allow students to study how bacteria come together to cause infections.

Sarah Wacker and student studying bacteria on plants

Alexis Brown '19 (left) and Sarah Wacker, Ph.D., (right) study bacteria that lives in the soil and on the roots of plants.

Sarah Wacker, Ph.D., an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Manhattan College, has received an Academic Research Enhancement Awards (AREA) R15 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to identify and characterize the environmental signals that bacteria recognize when forming communities called biofilms. These communities have roles in a variety of settings and can lead to chronic infections that are difficult to treat. 

The proposed research will answer fundamental questions about how cells choose a particular fate and how environmental signals are integrated into the decision to form a multicellular community.

Undergraduate students will be involved in all aspects of this research, from isolating plant materials to testing the materials’ binding to specific proteins and identifying how proteins interact with one another. 

“This grant will allow me to dramatically expand my research agenda by providing extra resources to conduct experiments, outsource experiments that require instrumentation we don't have and purchase new equipment,” Wacker explained. 

“Importantly, it will also allow me to pay students to work on my research projects, which I hope will attract some of the best student researchers and allow them to dedicate more time to research. These students will learn many modern techniques and have the opportunity to work on meaningful research and learn important skills of how scientific research is conducted.” 

The $383,078 grant will combine the training of Manhattan College undergraduate students in protein biochemistry, molecular biology and microbiology with research exploring the mechanisms that drive bacterial biofilm formation. 

These research projects will provide students with the opportunity to explore complex scientific questions using modern techniques, allowing them to build strong scientific analysis skills as well as a solid foundation in biochemical and biological techniques.

Their training and learning experience will result in advances in the field of bacterial biofilm formation as well as in the field of protein signaling. Furthermore, the successful completion of this grant may help develop methods to prevent or disrupt biofilms associated with infections.

AREA grants stimulate research at educational institutions that provide baccalaureate training for a significant number of the nation's research scientists but that have not been major recipients of NIH support. Awards provide funding for small-scale, new or ongoing health-related meritorious research projects, enhancing the research environment at eligible institutions and exposing students to research opportunities.

By Pete McHugh