Biological sciences professor receives grant

by Abby Ridsdill-Smith | 7/20/18 2:25am

The National Science Foundation recently awarded Dartmouth an $800,000 Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) grant for Biological sciences professor Michael Hoppa to study nerve signaling in the human brain.

According to the NSF’s website, the grant is one of foundation’s “most prestigious awards,” and aims to support early-career faculty who can serve as academic role models and make progress in their areas of study and institutions.

Hoppa said that he applied for the grant in July 2017 and that it was approved the following winter. New Hampshire’s U.S. Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan announced that Dartmouth had been awarded the grant earlier this month.

Hoppa said that his work shows the way in which electrical signals passing through the nerves are modulated at the synapses. Synapses, also known as neuronal junctions, are the spaces between nerve cells and other cells.

“The longstanding theory is that action potentials can be thought of as digital signals [working like] a binary code of zeros and ones,” Hoppa said. “Action potential can actually change a lot of its properties of its amplitude and width. Although its initiation is a digital zero or a one by the time it arrives to another cell, it’s an analogue signal.”

Hoppa said that he believes his work “adds a whole new layer to our understanding of plasticity and learning,” and could be used for research about illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy.

Vice provost for research Dean Madden explained that the grant will offer two opportunities by enabling Hoppa to further the research itself and giving undergraduate students the chance to learn research techniques by working with Hoppa. He added that the grant has already allowed Hoppa to bring more talented Dartmouth undergraduates into the lab over the summer.

Hoppa noted that the CAREER award makes it clear to other colleges that “[Dartmouth] is a place where you are not only going to get to interact with undergraduates, but you can do high-impact research.”

Madden also commented on how the grant can affect the visibility of Dartmouth’s research.

“Faculty members who are applying will ask faculty who have succeeded in getting grants if they can share tips or strategies for writing a grant,” Madden said. “The more we have success, the more we have examples of successful applications.”

Physics and astronomy professor Ryan Hickox was awarded a CAREER grant in 2016 worth $672,000 for his project, “The Hidden Monsters: Cosmic Evolution of Obscured Supermassive Black Holes.”

Hickox said that the CAREER grant’s five-year term enabled junior researchers to “map out the whole scope of the project,” ultimately allowing them to see the project through to its conclusion. He added that CAREER awards of this kind help undergraduates by increasing research opportunities.

“The research activity naturally provides more opportunities for undergraduates for getting involved in cutting edge stuff while they’re involved in their undergraduate studies,” Hickox said.