Neuroscience professor wins $750K NIH research grant
Whether it’s caused by glaucoma, injury, or simply aging, damage to a person’s optic nerve remains essentially permanent. But does it have to be?
That question has been swimming in Carthage professor Steven Henle’s head since his postdoctoral research introduced him to zebrafish, which can recover from similar nerve damage in as little as a week.
Awarded nearly $750,000 from the National Institutes of Health, the new assistant professor of neuroscience intends to work with Carthage students over the next three years to study eye development in the freshwater fish species. In particular, he’ll focus on a pair of genes known as “Yap” and “Taz” that appear critical to the healing process.
The NIH Pathway to Independence Award supports emerging scientific researchers as they transition to faculty positions.
“In the sciences, it is quite impressive for a colleague to receive this award,” said Professor Daniel Miller, chair of the Neuroscience Department. “It means that a group of successful scientists deemed Dr. Henle to have the same potential for success in research.”
The grant allows Prof. Henle to build on work he conducted over the past three years as a postdoctoral fellow at the Medical College of Wisconsin. While others have used similar techniques to gauge possibilities for spinal cord regeneration, the optical nerve is a new frontier.
Prof. Miller said students were drawn to that promising line of research, as well as Prof. Henle’s “ability to teach very complex neurobiological concepts.” But the NIH offered no guarantee that the grant — whose recipients usually land at large, graduate research-oriented schools — would follow him to Carthage.
First, according to Prof. Miller, the College needed “to demonstrate that we have the resources and commitment” to carry out the newcomer’s ambitious project. The well-equipped Science Center, which opened in 2015, strongly supported Carthage’s case.
The funding will cover new equipment and a technician’s salary, but Prof. Henle says the main beneficiaries are students. They’ll take on the lion’s share of the eye research.
His wife, Andrea Henle, is a Carthage biology professor who also employs zebrafish in her primary line of research: the development of cancer. He insists it was “just through happenstance” that the couple wound up studying the same model.
The species offers several experimental advantages. Besides being small and relatively inexpensive, they’re practically transparent. And they progress through stages of development in a matter of days.
“You can look at them in the morning and then look at them in the afternoon, and you can see something happened,” Prof. Henle said.
Students will participate in the eye study year-round. Long term, he hopes to incorporate it into Carthage neuroscience courses — much like his counterparts in the Biology Department converted the selective Phage Hunters research program into the backbone of an introductory class.
The ripples of this award stretch beyond the fish tank. Prof. Henle points out the “potential snowball effect” for the College, which could open the door to other major NIH grants by proving its scientific mettle to the federal agency.
That’s not wishful thinking on his part. The grant description notes that awards like the one to Prof. Henle are “intended to foster the development of a creative, independent research program that will be competitive for subsequent independent funding.”