By Eleanor La Prade
DOVER — Delaware State University announced its largest- ever research grant Monday — at five years and $10.5 million — which will establish the Delaware Center for Neuroscience Research on campus.
The Center for Biomedical Research Excellence grant was awarded by the National Institutes of Health. It will support research on brain development and the neurobiology of learning, including five established research projects from associate professors at DSU and UD. Four other faculty members will be supported with smaller pilot grants. The grant will also provide startup funds to recruit three new neuroscience faculty members.
The center is a joint endeavor by DSU, the lead institution, and the University of Delaware. DSU will receive $7.3 million over five years, while UD will receive $3.2 million.
Neuroscience graduate students at each university can take classes at the other institution tuition-free. The program will also cut across disciplines, involving faculty researchers in biology, psychology, and mechanical engineering.
“This is an outstanding development for the state of Delaware, in that its two state universities have joined research forces to attract this grant to the First State,” DSU President Harry L. Williams said.
The two universities have very different neuroscience programs. The DSU neuroscience Ph.D. program focuses on biology, while the UD program is in the Psychology department and focuses on behavioral neuroscience.
“We don’t compete at all. We’re very complementary,” said Dr. Melissa Harrington, who will direct the center. “We regularly meet together in a room and we bring different expertises and perspectives to the same problem. So the overall pool of knowledge that we get to attack a problem is going to increase — we learn from each other, and that helps everybody’s science advance faster.”
Dr. Harrington said that she and neuroscience faculty members from both schools have been collaborating since 2007.
They submitted their first grant proposal for the center in 2009, which was denied.
“We kept working on it, we kept meeting, we kept talking. Then, a year and a half, maybe 20 months later, in 2011 we submitted it again,” she said.
The National Institutes of Health approved the resubmission.
“I think part of the reason they took a chance in funding us was because we kept working and strengthening it,” Dr. Harrington said. “We weren’t sitting around waiting for the money to show up. We were building things all along together and forming collaborations.”
Through neuroscience, which is the study of the nervous system, scientists are beginning to understand how strokes and diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s develop.
“The research that’s going to take place here will get us closer to unlocking the secrets that will help us cure those diseases,” Sen. Thomas R. Carper, D-Del. said. “The research will not just be a game- changer for this university, but for milions of families.”
For instance, Dr. Tania Roth, an assistant professor of psychology at UD, is studying epigentics, or the changes that experience makes to DNA.
“Scientists have only recently begun to realize that our genes change over our lives. It’s not that the structure of the gene changes, but the chemical modifications on it change and that changes how genes are expressed,” Dr. Harrington explained.
“The goal is that if you can understand how experience changes our neurons on the cellular level, you can supply drugs to target that change, either to ameliorate the damage or provide protection.”
The research grant will in part support Dr. Roth’s work.
Delaware’s entire congressional delegation attended the announcement at DSU on Monday, as well as state legislators and university officials.
“The future of our state — including our economy and the health of our citizens — will be powered forward by investments like this one,” Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said.
For Rep. John Carney, D.-Del., the grant was that fulfillment of a longterm project.
Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, who is married to Dr. Harrington, told Rep. Carney about the project years ago, when it was a new idea.
That was when Rep. Carney was lieutenant governor, and serving as the chair of the Delaware Science and Technology Council. The council’s goal was to build a statewide network of colleges and universities.
Rep. Carney was working with two federal grants then, meant to help scientific research in the state.
“One of the main purposes of the earlier grants was to help institutions compete for grants like this one,” Rep. Carney said.