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Fort Lewis College professor awarded $400,000 to study RNA and viruses

In just the first few months of 2017, Dr. Katie Mouzakis has knocked it out of the park—not once, but twice—in terms of receiving research funding for her and her students. The Fort Lewis College assistant professor of chemistry was awarded a Support of Competitive Research (SCORE) award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which was followed by her being named a 2017 Cottrell Scholar from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement. Together, the two awards will bring $400,000 to FLC for research and teaching. 

Dr. Mouzakis’ research focuses on the structure and function of Ribonucleic Acid (RNA), which serves as a messenger for Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA). In particular, she’s examining the role of RNA structure in viral replication.

“We’re interested in understanding how you can change a structure, or how a shape of a structure impacts the ability of a virus to replicate,” she explains.

The implication being that someday we may be able to alter a virus’ RNA structure to stop it from replicating in the body.

Both awards promote the development of early career faculty in the sciences. The NIH award is aimed at increasing the research competitiveness of that faculty member and the research base of their institution. Similarly, the Cottrell Scholar Award fosters the continued development of outstanding teacher-scholars. This is the first time since the mid-1990’s that an individual investigator award from NIH has been granted to a faculty member at Fort Lewis College.

A faculty member must have a significant record of research success and a compelling project design to receive these highly competitive awards. Additionally, they must be recognized by their scientific peers for the quality and innovation of their research programs and their academic leadership skills.

“This funding will provide three years of support for our ongoing research and educational efforts. The resulting publications will improve the research reputation of the College, which is important for our graduates when they’re pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.”

Another important goal of the awards is to provide students increased access to research experiences. “The idea with the awards is that if you can increase the competitiveness of a faculty member for external grants, specifically by helping them establish new lines of research, then they will be able to bring in even more grant money to support student participation in research. This has the potential to have a huge impact on all students at Fort Lewis College,” says Dr. Mouzakis.

Fort Lewis College’s student body is one of the most diverse in Colorado with nearly 50 percent of students coming from minority backgrounds. That overall diversity translates into the FLC Chemistry and Biochemistry Department, where around half of the majors are from underrepresented groups. This diversity is similarly reflected in the composition of Dr. Mouzakis’ research group. Of the thirty-five research students she has mentored, seventeen identified as underrepresented in the biomedical sciences.

For more information on the Fort Lewis College Chemistry and Biochemistry Department, visit www.fortlewis.edu/chemistry

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