Big Honors for Small Wonders at Queens College

March 23, 2012 | Queens College

FLUSHING, NY, March 23, 2012 – Queens College’s Luat Vuong (Physics, hired 2010) and John Dennehy (Biology, hired 2007) operate in different fields, but both are in microscopic worlds below the threshold of human vision. And both recently received National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early CAREER Development Awards. The awards, which carry substantial cash grants as well as cover overhead costs for the college, recognize and support outstanding research efforts by prom- ising young scientists early in their careers.

Dennehy’s research is focused on how viruses infect new host types and spread pandemically. “Over the past 30 years, a number of viruses have emerged in one species and infect- ed another,” says Dennehy. “The classic example is HIV, which evolved from chimpanzees to humans with catastrophic con- sequences.” But every virus that similarly evolves in humans doesn’t precipitate a public health crisis on the scale of HIV and AIDS. Past outbreaks of SARS and Avian influenza, Dennehy notes, “have never risen to the level of our fears.”

At the center of his research is the question: Are there ways to predict which viruses are more likely than others to pose a global health threat? “My theory is that the way these viruses evolve in humans is similar to how they evolve in bacteria,” he says. “So, in our lab, we’re using bacteria as a much more practical stand-in for humans.”

Vuong’s research focuses on how polarized light produces electrical currents when it strikes sub-microscopic, nanoscaled nano-structures. “Nanostructures are small—smaller than the wavelengths of visible light,” she says. But her field of interest “is more than just physics,” she adds. “The phenomena and dynamics we probe also have potential implications for biology and chemistry.” In time, applications of Vuong’s research could lead to a new generation of optoelectronic devices, advances in energy harvesting, and the development of medical sensors.

In the classroom, as in the lab,Vuong emphasizes the intersection of physics and other disciplines.That philoso- phy underlies her Modern Physics for Computer Scientists course. “There is more overlap between physics and com- puter science than is currently taught in the traditional curriculum,” she says.

Dennehy teaches a course in genomic research for non-biology majors. Students collect soil samples and isolate novel viruses of Mycobacterium smegmatis, a close relative of M. tuberculosis.They extract viral DNA for whole genome sequencing and then analyze the genomes computationally to discover new genes and, possibly, new ways to treat tubercu- losis. In so doing, “the students—mostly freshmen, including many who haven’t yet declared a major—have an opportunity to do real, meaningful research in a lab.” Their findings are then shared with a consortium of colleges in the Science Education Alliance, funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “Our hope is this work will yield findings that could someday help develop new treatments for tuberculosis,” Dennehy says.

Both Vuong and Dennehy are quick to acknowledge the contributions of the graduate and postgraduate students working with them in the lab. “They’re incredibly hardworking and have totally exceeded my expectations,” Vuong says. Apart from the professional recogni- tion they confer, CAREER Development Awards provide funding support that can figure crucially in research efforts. “A grant like this enables me to give the students working with me the time and space they need to learn,” says Vuong. “That’s good for them—and good for science.”

For more about Queens College visit Phyllis Cohen Stevens
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