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NSF Grant Goes to Two Biologists for Collaborative Project

Colorado College Assistant Professor of Biology Darrell Killian and Eugenia Olesnicky Killian, assistant professor of biology at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, have received a collaborative grant for $677,091 from the National Science Foundation to support their research on how genes regulate the nervous system.

NSF Grant Goes to Two Biologists for Collaborative Project

This is designed around involving undergraduates.

- Darrell Killian

Colorado College Assistant Professor of Biology Darrell Killian and Eugenia Olesnicky Killian, assistant professor of biology at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, have received a collaborative grant for $677,091 from the National Science Foundation to support their research on how genes regulate the nervous system.

Colorado College will receive approximately $375,000 of the grant to support research conducted in Darrell Killian’s lab, including summer stipends for two students for each of three summers, and a full-time research technician for three years.

“This is designed around involving undergraduates,” Darrell Killian said.  The Block Plan figured into the work, as the Killians envisioned many small projects that are doable in a short time frame that contribute to the overall research project.

“It’s a unique opportunity for our students,” said Eugenia Olesnicky Killian.  Three of her students, both undergraduate and master’s students in biology, are already spending time in Darrell’s laboratory at CC as well as hers at UCCS. 

The students and the Killians, who are married, will meet every week or so to talk about research papers and other work that will help them think about their research.  “We are trying to create a dynamic research culture,” Eugenia said. “We’re not just training them to do research, which is the most important, but also to introduce them to the scientific culture that you’d see in graduate school.”

Students will use a new confocal microscope at UCCS, purchased with funds from the BioFrontiers Institute there, that produces very high-resolution images.

At CC, the grant will support Darrell’s work on Caenorhabditis elegans, a microscopic, transparent, soil-dwelling worm.  Basically, the researchers are interested in how certain genes affect the shape of a neuron, and therefore its function.  A normal neuron looks roughly like a tree with many branches called dendrites.  The dendrites are required for receiving information from the environment or other cells. A stripped-down neuron, with fewer branches, is associated with disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, Down syndrome, and even stress and anxiety.   The Killians are interested in how different proteins operate in different parts of the neuron as neurons develop.  (They are focusing on genes that encode RNA-binding proteins, which they hypothesize are important for regulating neuron development.)

The idea for the research began over the Killians’ dinner table.

“We talk about this stuff at home quite a bit,” Darrell said. “Not the nuts and bolts of the science, but organizing things together.”

In one dinnertime conversation, Eugenia talked about a particularly interesting gene she was working on when she was conducting research on Drosophilia, or fruit flies, at a Princeton laboratory where she was a post-doctoral fellow.

“We were chatting, and we discovered we had worked with the same gene,” Darrell said.  His had been in C. elegans, the microscopic worm that ended up being the focus of his current research.

“It’s arguably easier because we’re married,” Eugenia said of their research work.  It’s not common for married couples to collaborate, but it’s not unheard of, she added.

Eugenia looked at hundreds of genes, one at a time, that she thought were important in controlling how a neuron develops.  Now, their collaborative research is focused on about 90 genes that regulate dendrite development in neurons.  

They suspect that these genes work the same in the worms and the fruit flies, and their grant will support their research to investigate this question. And they’re wondering whether the same core set of genes is involved in the same process in humans. 

“This could contribute to our understanding of how neurological disorders occur in humans,” Genia said.  With this research, the Killians hope to be able to build a model of how this might operate in humans.

For the grant, the two set up experiments that would give them what’s known as a “proof of principle” to begin the research, looking at the same set of genes in the fruit fly and the worm, which are both important and popular laboratory animals.

Two Colorado College students did experiments that helped establish the “proof of principle.”  Genevieve Kerr ‘12, now in a doctoral program, based her senior thesis on her work last year on a gene found in both animals.  And Leah Kellogg ‘13 found two more genes that “look pretty good,” Darrell Killian said.

“It’s exciting that we have the grant to do this, and we can pursue the research aggressively,” he said.

The research is interdisciplinary, as Eugenia is an expert in neuroscience, and Darrell’s background is in cellular biology and genetics.  “I’m more an expert in gene-tinkering,” he said.

The Killians use a combination of approaches that they expect will identify the mechanisms involved, but also offer insight into general molecular strategies in many types of animal cells.

Both Killians hope to integrate the research into student projects, with the work expected to promote critical thinking and sophisticated laboratory skills.  “This collaborative research project will greatly benefit students and biology departments on both campuses by promoting the sharing of ideas, experiences, reagents, and lab equipment,” the Killians noted in their grant application.

“We’re hoping to work together more,” Eugenia said of the two departments.  “This is the first collaboration to my knowledge between the two departments.”

Darrell Killian also plans to use the research in a new developmental neurobiology course at CC. The Killians also plan to take the research to the local community, through a schools program at UCCS, and through the Colorado College Elementary School Outreach Program for Neuroscience Education.