Physics professor receives NIH grants to study membrane proteins

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently awarded a $1.86 million grant to Dr. Thorsten-Lars Schmidt to develop molecular tools that help researchers to understand membrane proteins. The R35 or “Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award” (MIRA) provides promising researchers with a five-year funding for a broader research program, rather than funding a specific project. This gives investigators a great deal of freedom to develop new research directions as opportunities arise, rather than being bound to specific aims of a more narrow study. This flexibility makes this an extremely competitive grant. 

Headshot of Thorsten-Lars Schmidt

The award will not only cover the cost for research-related expenses but will also provide training and research opportunities for junior scientists for five years. Schmidt has already hired a postdoctoral researcher and will offer additional projects to graduate, undergraduate, and high school students.  Schmidt and his team will develop molecular tools that will help to determine the molecular structures of membrane proteins, which are among the least understood components of cells.

“Cells would quickly die without the membrane proteins that are incorporated in every cell membrane. Moreover, they play important roles in virtually all transmittable or genetic diseases,” Schmidt said. The importance of membrane proteins was highlighted by the 2021 Nobel prize for medicine for the study of ion channels, which are a special class of membrane proteins that Schmidt and his team will also work on.

To better equip students with a broad, interdisciplinary perspective on molecular life sciences, Schmidt developed and began teaching an introductory biophysics course at Kent State Fall. 

“It is important to teach these classes to expose students to this rather new field at the intersection of Physics, Biology and Chemistry that many students have not heard of before,” Schmidt said. “It's rewarding to see that students seem to like this type of science and research, and several students have expressed interest in joining my lab.”

A New Atomic Force Microscope at KSU 

Related to this grant, in August 2022, the NIH awarded an instrumentation grant for a high-end Atomic Force Microscope (AFM) to Dr. Thorsten-Lars Schmidt in the department of Physics. Atomic Force Microscopes can sample the topography of a sample by rastering its surface with an atomically sharp tip. AFMs can produce images of individual molecules with a higher resolution, contrast and signal to noise ratio than other imaging method and no other method provides topographical information at this resolution. For example, individual DNA molecules that have a diameter of only 2 nanometers can be imaged.  

The new AFM will support the ongoing research on DNA-lipid nanodiscs, for which Dr. Schmidt received the prestigious NIH MIRA award (Maximizing Investigator’s Research Award), the first for Kent State University.   The device offers high-speed imaging at video frame rates which allows studying dynamic molecular processes in situ. Although optimized for biological samples and imaging in native aqueous solutions, many other imaging modes that are commonly used in material sciences are also supported.

Learn more about this project

POSTED: Sunday, September 25, 2022 - 10:10am
UPDATED: Sunday, September 25, 2022 - 10:56am
Physics Department