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Jennifer Punt Awarded National Science Foundation Grant

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Professor of Biology Jennifer Punt a $300,000 grant for her project “RUI: The origin and function of mature Nur77low T cell subpopulations in the thymus.” This grant will fund two years of Punt’s research on the small population of mature T-cells that stay in or return to the thymus, the organ in the chest where T cells develop but usually do not remain.

“Our work should have an impact on our understanding of autoimmunity,” says Punt, “but will also add to a deeper understanding of the organization and function of a remarkable organ—one that is present in all, even the most primitive, vertebrates.”

This work was inspired by the research of one of Punt’s former students, Shelly Mintz ’11. Mintz returned from a study abroad experience in Australia with an interest in discovering a connection between a protein she had been studying (called CD103) and the development of T cells, which is one of the main research threads in Punt’s lab.

“This grant is trying to make sense of a tiny, but unique and probably very potent, population of mature T cells that reside in a place that ordinarily devotes itself to the development of immature T cells,” says Punt. “We think that they are supporting this development by maintaining the health and activity of cells that protect us from autoimmunity, and we are testing this possibility as we speak.”

Punt is thrilled that the NSF awarded her this grant, which will support the purchase of supplies, the funding of senior research projects and the continued services of her lab’s technician, Nicole Cunningham, whom Punt says, “provides all-important continuity to our efforts.”

But the receipt of the grant represents especially good news since Punt originally thought she had been rejected for it. Waiting to board a plane after a conference in California, she read an email from the NSF that she thought said that her work would not be funded. After a plane ride spent brainstorming new ways to come up with money to support the research, Punt landed and received another email telling her she’d misinterpreted the initial correspondence.

“I turned on my phone and saw another message from the program director, [saying] ‘I think you misunderstood what I was saying! I spent the morning telling 75 percent of the applicants that their grant would not be funded. That is not what I meant for yours. Once we find the money, we can fund your grant for two years.’ I had to double-check my messages! I can only say it felt very surreal to have my perspectives and expectations pivot 180 degrees. The world brightened, blood pressure dropped. I was relieved and, momentarily, elated.”

So now, with funding worries behind her, Punt is hard at work with her team in the lab and thankful for the opportunities this NSF grant makes possible.

“In truth, the funding helps to provide the best educational experience for my students, something I care about at times even more than the specific scientific advances,” she says.

The path that leads to the Gardner Integrated Athletic Center and Whitehead Campus Center. The GIAC opened in 2006.

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