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Casey Londergan Wins NSF CAREER Grant

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Casey Londergan in his lab with students.
Assistant Professor of Chemistry Casey Londergan in his lab with students.

The Assistant Professor of Chemistry is being honored for his dual role as a “scholar-educator” with $505,424 to fund his research.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Assistant Professor of Chemistry Casey Londergan a $505,424 CAREER grant for a project titled “CAREER: Site-specific vibrational probes of membrane binding and protonation in proteins.” This award, which specifically recognizes junior faculty members for excelling in their dual roles as “scholar-educators,” will fund five years of Londergan’s research into the development of new techniques for understanding dynamic protein structure at the level of atoms.

“Two groups of proteins that we hope to characterize better using the work funded by this grant are proteins whose jobs are performed in or at membrane surfaces and proteins whose structures change due to variable charge states at specific sites on the proteins’ surfaces,” he says. “In the first group of proteins are many proteins associated with neurodegenerative diseases—we are currently working with alpha-synuclein, a membrane protein whose dysfunction is linked with Parkinson’s disease. In the second group of proteins are many viral proteins—we are particularly interested in hemagglutinin, a major surface protein of the flu virus that appears to determine its virulence.  In both cases, we will apply new analytical techniques developed in our own lab to understand the functional motions of these proteins.”

This grant will help Londergan purchase some major lab equipment, hire student research assistants and cover continuing lab expenses. Additionally, it will fund summer stipends for high school teachers who will work in Londergan’s lab developing new activities for both Haverford and high school chemistry labs.

“Casey pursues research questions that are at the forefront of chemistry and his research students are brought to a level expected of graduate students,” says Professor of Chemistry and Department Chair Karin Åkerfeldt, herself a CAREER grant awardee in 1998. “Casey’s undergraduate research students are also his collaborators. He gives them frequent opportunities to present their work at regional and national meetings and many of them become co-authors on publications in peer-reviewed journals. After his guidance, his students have gone on to pursue higher education for the purposes of teaching, chemistry and health-related careers at the very best institutions.”

It is that mentoring and his dedication, not just in the lab, but also in the classroom that helped Londergan earn this grant. “The NSF CAREER award places particular emphasis and value on the interconnectedness between research and education,” says Åkerfeldt. “It is especially gratifying to receive this kind of recognition as our mission is undergraduate education.”  (Londergan and Åkerfeldt are in good company; several other Haverford professors, including Assistant Professor of Physics Peter Love, Associate Professor of Physics Stephon Alexander ’93 and Assistant Professor of Astronomy Beth Willman, have been similarly recognized.)

“For me, these two roles [as a scholar and an educator] are inextricably linked,” says Londergan. “I am not sure that I could be a compelling teacher without new and interesting research going on in my lab. The engagement that I have with the greater scientific community through my research feeds directly back into my teaching each year. Every class that I teach is reshaped and motivated by what we learn in my lab and what we learn by interacting with other scientists interested in related problems. Mentoring students in research is a central part of what I enjoy ??working at Haverford, partly because the students are so wonderful, and partly because it directly unifies teaching and research into one activity.”

Londergan is, therefore, especially grateful to two recent graduates, Alice Vienneau ’12 and Kevin Hoffman ’12, whose work over several years in his lab directly generated the ideas that led to the activities funded by this grant. Current students Marta Wolfshorndl ’13, Aigner Picou ’14, Rachel Baskin ’14 and Matthew Romei ’14 are working in Londergan’s lab now on the grant-funded research.

“Casey truly values a holistic and well-rounded liberal arts education,” says Åkerfeldt. “He genuinely takes great interest in all aspect of our students, not only their academic growth and intellectual achievements, but also their interests outside of academics, including sports and music.”

“My lab,” says Londergan, “usually includes students from all active classes, and I look forward to involving many more students over the next few years.”

-Rebecca Raber

Originally posted at: http://www.haverford.edu/news/stories/63431/161