Montana State University

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Christa MerzdorfA Montana State University researcher who studies early development of the brain has received the largest National Science Foundation CAREER Award in MSU history.

Christa Merzdorf, an assistant professor of cell biology and neuroscience, received a five-year grant totaling $765,677 this spring. With it, she plans to continue her research, develop a research-based course for advanced undergraduate students and create an educational module for middle school students around Montana.

"It's really fantastic," Merzdorf said of the award. "I am absolutely thrilled."

The CAREER Award is the NSF's most prestigious award to support early career development of teacher-scholars. Notable because it goes to a single person instead of a team, it honors outstanding scientists who haven't yet received tenure. Since she is currently applying for tenure, Merzdorf said this was her last chance to apply for the CAREER award. Merzdorf earned her doctorate at Harvard Medical School and did her postdoctoral research at the Whitehead Institute, a part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Merzdorf uses frog and chick embryos to research hindbrain development and neural tube closure. With her NSF grant, Merzdorf said she will use frog embryos and focus much of her research on a gene that's involved extremely early in the formation of the brain. The gene, Zic-1, is needed for proper development of the central nervous system and closure of the neural tube.

"That's why it's of such huge interest," Merzdorf said. "It's early in the cascade of steps necessary for neural tube development."

The neural tube gives rise to the central nervous system, including the cerebellum and other hindbrain structures at the base of the brain in the back of the head that are important for coordination and balance. Neural tubes start out flat, but they roll into a tube as the embryo develops. When development is normal, the middle of the tube closes first and then the ends. Birth defects result if the tube doesn't close properly.

With an office full of frog drawings from local elementary students she has visited, Merzdorf said she studies frog embryos for a variety of reasons. They're easy to come by and large enough that she can watch them develop under a normal microscope. When embryo images from under the microscope are enlarged and printed for easy viewing, an embryo looks like a black-and-white apricot. The indentation that runs from end to end is the neural tube.

Frog embryos also develop quickly, Merzdorf said. The time from fertilization to neural tube closure is 24 hours in a frog embryo and approximately three weeks in humans. They're also a good model for what happens in the human brain.

"The same genes are used for those really important early processes," Merzdorf said. "Basically, it's the same biological processes that give rise to our nervous system."

Frog and human genes have their differences, of course, Merzdorf said. She added, however, that neural tube and nervous system formation in humans and frogs are "extremely similar and regulated by the same principles."

Merzdorf is one of 15 MSU researchers who have received NSF CAREER Awards. MSU's first, in 1995, went to Tim McDermott in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences. McDermott, who recently published findings about alga that detoxify arsenic around Yellowstone hot springs , said the NSF CAREER award was very important to his early career development.

"A primary benefit was, of course, funding to help me establish my research program and momentum," McDermott said. "In addition, CAREER Award recipients also participated in follow-up meetings at the NSF, which also proved valuable. These workshops allowed me to meet relevant program officers and to begin networking with other recipients and to learn about the education components in the other awards."

MSU's CAREER grants have ranged between $114,220 and Merzdorf's $765,677. Besides Merzdorf's and McDermott's departments, recipients have been in physics, veterinary molecular biology, chemistry, earth sciences and various departments in the College of Engineering.

May 4 , 2009 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu