University of Oregon scientist Brad J. Nolen, who studies the molecular basis for actin formation in cells, is completing his second year as a high-profile Pew Scholar, a title and financial award granted by the Pew Charitable Trusts foundation.
The Pew Biomedical Scholars award is granted every year to a group of relatively young researchers who demonstrate excellence in the field of life sciences related to biochemical study. Nolen was among the 22 Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences named in 2011.
"It's a very prestigious organization, and I feel lucky to be a part of it. I do believe it will help me in the future," said Nolen, an assistant professor of biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics.
The Pew Charitable Trusts is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to improving public policy and global research through thorough rigorous analysis and public outreach, based in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Since 1985, the Pew Scholars Program in Biomedical Science has awarded more than $130 million to more than 500 researchers.
The award provides $240,000 to recipients over four years, during which the researchers must provide an annual progress report. Previous Pew Scholars have gone on to win Nobel Prizes or other prestigious awards. Strict eligibility requirements include having been awarded a doctorate in biomedical science or medicine.
"They are not shy about their expectations for scholars," said Nolen, a member of the UO Institute of Molecular Biology.
To become a Pew Scholar, researchers submit a proposal for research and their curriculum vitae, which summarizes their academic and scientific work. The applications are reviewed by a national advisory committee and then passed on to the Pew Scholar board to make the final decision. The proposal that Nolen submitted called for using X-ray crystallography to determine the three-dimensional structures of proteins that regulate the formation of actin networks.
Nolen's lab investigates the molecular basis for the regulation of a cell's cytoskeleton, the protein filaments that give a cell its structure. The cytoskeleton is a complicated network of actin proteins that are constantly assembled and disassembled in response to signals within the cell. Many complex proteins are involved in these networks, and Nolen's lab is specifically looking at one important protein in actin fiber assembly. Viruses and bacteria use the cytoskeleton to invade human cells, and cancer cells depend on the cytoskeleton to spread.
"Improving our understanding of the molecules that constitute this machinery will contribute to our understanding of diseased states in humans and how to treat them," Nolen said.
Using a combination of biophysics, cell biology and now X-ray crystallography, Nolen’s lab explores the regulation of these processes. In addition to the Pew support, Nolen's research in heavily supported by a grant (RO1 GM092917) from the National Institutes of Health and a grant (105DG2610189) from the American Heart Association.
Nolen's interest in cytoskeletal network initiation began when he was completing his postdoctoral research that began in 2003 at Yale University where he worked under Dr. Thomas Pollard, the Sterling Professor of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology.
Once a year, Pew scholars meet to present their research and exchange ideas, along with the winners of the Pew Latin American Fellows, another branch of the Pew Foundation’s biomedical research awards. This year, the meeting was held in March on a small island called Vieques, part of Puerto Rico and located eight miles east of the mainland. Next year the scholars will meet in Costa Rica. For their first and fourth years attending the meeting, scholars must present a seminar about their research. In the second and third years, the scholars present their research in a poster session with other researchers.
"They not only want to fund the research, but they also want to provide an opportunity for us to interact with each other," Nolen said of the foundation.
Nolen earned a bachelor's degree in 1997 at Missouri State University, a master's degree in 1999 at the University of California San Diego, and a doctorate from UC-San Diego. He completed his postdoctoral work at Yale University in 2008 before coming to the UO.