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Professor Honored for Cutting-Edge Research in Neurobiology

A biology faculty member won a prestigious award for cutting-edge neurobiology research with her students. Ursinus is the only Pennsylvania liberal arts college to be honored with the Charles E. Kaufman New Investigator Award.

Jennifer Round, assistant professor in the Department of Biology, is one of seven rising faculty members from a pool of 240 applicants to receive a Charles E. Kaufman New Investigator Award from The Pittsburgh Foundation. Ursinus is one of six Pennsylvania colleges and universities to receive recognition for cutting-edge research and is the only small liberal arts institution to be honored this year.

Round was awarded $150,000 over two years, which includes stipends for summer research students, student travel to national conferences, and other research support.

The research, which stems from a discovery in Round’s cellular neurobiology class, will engage a number of Ursinus students in cutting-edge research, stimulate interest in research careers, and could lead to a better understanding of cellular defects that cause disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and autism.

In her research abstract, titled “Interaction of psychiatric risk factor Ankyrin-G and Slitrk2 in excitatory synapse formation,” she explains that the human brain has billions of neurons interconnected by over a trillion synapses. Most of this intricate network is formed during embryonic development, when neurons rely on cell surface proteins to find their synaptic partners with extraordinary precision. (A synapse permits a neuron to pass an electrical or chemical signal to another neuron.) “Subtle errors in this matchmaking process are the biological basis of many devastating disorders, including autism, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. A thorough examination of the protein interactions that drive synapse formation has real potential to enhance our understanding of the cellular basis of neurological disease,” she said.

Round will explore a potential interaction between two well-known psychiatric risk factors, Slitrk2 and Ankyrin-G, which may cooperate to control the number and positioning of synapses during neural circuit formation. The interaction between these two proteins was discovered by students in her Fall 2013 cellular neurobiology course. Their original research project used a screening approach known as the yeast 2-hybrid assay to identify novel binding partners for Slitrk2. That finding, said Round, could shed new light on the cell signaling events that control nervous system writing.

“Some people with these disorders have a defective versions of Slitrk2 or Ankyrin-G, but we don’t know much about how these two proteins cooperate at the cellular level,” she said. This pilot study will pave the way for more in-depth studies of Slitrk signaling, and could attract future funding from the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health.

A total of 10 grants were awarded to leading researchers at six Pennsylvania colleges and universities: Carnegie Mellon, Duquesne, Pennsylvania State University, Lehigh, Ursinus College and the University of Pennsylvania.

The Charles E. Kaufman Foundation was established with $40 million to support new research initiatives at Pennsylvania institutions of higher learning in chemistry, biology and physics. The foundation is widely respected as one of the few major funding sources for basic scientific research. One goal of the awards, according to the foundation’s statement, is to jump-start careers at critical junctures, identifying promising new investigators.

Round received a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Rhode Island and a Ph.D. in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology from Yale University. She was an HHMI Postdoctoral Teaching and Research Fellow at Davidson College, before joining the Ursinus community in 2013.