Way Klingler Young Scholar Awards support promising young scholars in critical stages of their careers. The awards of up to $32,000 are intended to fund $2,000 in operating costs and to cover up to 50 percent of salary to afford the recipient a one-semester sabbatical.
What makes us dive into that second helping of mashed potatoes or guzzle a sweet drink? The answer is complicated.
“Wanting or needing to eat seems like a very simple concept,” said Dr. SuJean Choi, assistant professor of biomedical sciences and 2011 Way Klingler Young Scholar Award recipient. “You need something and your body tells you to go do it. But managing energy in your body is an extremely complex and exquisite system.”
Choi studies the neuroscience behind feeding behavior and body weight regulation. And when those complex processes misfire, it can lead to eating disorders, metabolic disorders or obesity.
Choi’s lab in the College of Health Sciences is examining the mechanisms underlying appetite suppressants. Many existing appetite suppression drugs work by manipulating serotonin, a neurotransmitter that contributes to feelings of well-being, so she is studying serotonin’s interaction with a specific neuropeptide, a signaling molecule. She hopes to discover why such drugs lose their effectiveness over time.
“How do we learn about how the brain is fighting back?” Choi asked. “The brain doesn’t know that we’re really overweight and we’d like to lose a few pounds so we can make it to our reunions. The brain only knows that the more food we have, the more likely we are to survive.”
A second focus of her lab is hypothalamic regulation of energy homeostasis, or how the body maintains metabolic equilibrium. The hypothalamus is the region in the brain associated with thirst, hunger, satiety and other functions. Choi is studying the hypothalamus as a site of action for appetite suppressants, but she also hopes to simply better understand that part of the brain. “What’s going on in there? What are some of the interesting signals we don’t understand yet?” she said.
Choi will use her sabbatical this fall to publish her latest results, apply for new grant funding and further her collaboration with Dr. David Baker, associate professor of biomedical sciences, who studies drug addiction. They believe that further study could reveal whether compulsive eaters would benefit from treatment similar to that used with drug addicts.
Since arriving at Marquette in 2008, Dr. Martin St. Maurice, assistant professor of biological sciences, has quickly established a well-funded research lab where undergraduate and graduate students conduct state-of-the-art research in structural biology, according to Dr. Bob Fitts, chair and professor of biological sciences.
St. Maurice has successfully competed for a National Science Foundation grant to help Marquette purchase a powerful molecular imaging device and is part of a three-member team that received a teaching enhancement award this spring to incorporate interactive-learning elements into entry-level Biology 1001.
Now, St. Maurice is earning distinction again as a 2011 Way Klingler Young Scholar. St. Maurice will use his sabbatical to publish recent findings and pursue new breakthroughs related to his research on the molecular-level structure and function of enzymes. Of particular interest is his team’s progress in understanding pyruvate carboxylase, an enzyme that acts as a catalyst and “gatekeeper” for the processes by which the liver delivers energy-rich glucose to the bloodstream and by which the pancreas responds to blood glucose by releasing insulin. Given insulin’s essential role in processing blood glucose and avoiding the high levels associated with diabetes, greater knowledge of PC’s molecular structure could lead to the discovery of compounds that turn up or down its catalytic activity, opening up avenues for therapeutic or industrial uses.
St. Maurice’s presentation last summer at a prestigious Gordon Research Conference indicates the national recognition this research is generating. And the young researcher is in line to lead the reapplication for federal R01 funding, which would move the project’s home institution from UW–Madison to Marquette. The award is another reason the Canadian feels comfortable and productive at Marquette. “I originally thought I’d go back to Canada after my post-doc fellowship [at UW–Madison] . . . but Marquette values teaching and it values research,” he said. “Both are important to me.”