USM Professor Awarded Prestigious NSF Research Grant

Clare Bates Congdon, photo courtesy of MDI Biological Lab

Clare Bates Congdon, photo courtesy of MDI Biological Lab

USM Assistant Professor of Computer Science Clare Bates Congdon of Waterville has been awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) “CAREER” grant designed to support the work of teacher-scholars who most effectively integrate their research with the education of students.

The NSF describes the $400,000, five-year CAREER grant, which is formally referred to as the Faculty Early Career Development Program, as one of its “most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research…”

The grant will support Congdon’s research in identifying elements within so-called noncoding DNA that are the most promising for laboratory research. This research, in turn, is considered essential in understanding the role that exposure to toxins and related environmental factors play in the transfer of genetic code.

Noncoding DNA refers to regions of DNA that do not encode proteins, or “instruct” a cell to build specific kinds of protein. This DNA was once called “junk DNA” because it was assumed that the noncoding regions were not functional. However, within noncoding regions are functional elements that alter the genetic mechanisms, and may cause more or fewer proteins to be produced. Congdon’s research focuses on developing powerful computational approaches to identify these noncoding DNA candidates that are the most promising for the laboratory work.

Congdon notes that, “…through robust collaborations with biologists and computer science faculty and students over the five years of the grant, we can expect to explore a variety of evolutionary computation and bioinformatics approaches that could contribute to the discovery of new knowledge about the mechanisms of genomics, as well as other phenomena such as the evolution of viruses.”

The grant also includes funds to support student researchers. In addition to hiring student research assistants, the grant will allow for the development of an upper-level bioinformatics course and the creation of bioinformatics-themed labs for use in introductory computer science courses. “This is a wonderful opportunity for our students to learn about the cutting-edge computational methodologies and technologies used for genomics research,” said Congdon.

Congdon has a strong track record of supporting student research. In the last two years, for example, she has mentored computer science students who developed artificial intelligence programs that won international competitions. She has also published 10 book chapters and conference papers with student co-authors in the past 10 years, and mentored students through more than 47 presentations at regional and international conferences in the same time period.

“This is a great tribute to Clare’s work and her potential to make significant contributions to this emerging field of research,” said Samantha Langley Turnbaugh, USM’s associate vice president for research, scholarship and creative activities. “We also are excited by the opportunities this award offers to undergraduate students.”

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