On the Frontlines of Fundamental Research

At the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, world-class researchers feed the innovation pipeline

The University of Denver’s College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics (NSM) is on a quest to produce science that can benefit humanity, supercharge future innovations and even excite the science nerd down the block. 

Along the way, the college aims to provide students hands-on opportunities to work alongside world-class scientists, the kind of access that Dean Andrei Kutateladze considers beneficial to the student, to the college and scientific community, and to a world in need of new therapies, cures, inventions and knowledge.

“There is increased understanding in higher ed that science education benefits from the kind of experiential learning that research provides,” Kutateladze says. “Our research-active faculty help create and finance the research infrastructure, and with it, wonderful opportunities for our undergraduate students to engage in experiential learning and undergraduate research, which are critical for their training and their long-term career aspirations. I would argue, and data support it, that research is the most sophisticated form of learning.”

Over the past year alone, NSM drew on—and expanded—its research infrastructure to help manage DU’s COVID-19 spread. It converted labs into processing facilities for spit tests and advised the University’s COVID coordinators on aerosol behavior. The college’s biologists—among them Phillip Danielson and Nancy Lorenzon—joined Sarah Watamura from the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences and Corinne Lengsfeld from the Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science to launch and sustain a program that, with student assistance, tested more than 11,000 people per week. The test not only saves the University money—each costs roughly $30, well below the $100 national average—but also detects the SARS-CoV-2 virus earlier in the disease’s progression, allowing cases to be identified before they are infectious.

And that was just for starters. The college also brought in millions of dollars in grants, including multiple NSF CAREER awards and DU’s first NIH Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA), worth $1.8 million. That grant went to Scott Horowitz of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. His work investigates how nucleic acids work in protein aggregation and folding, and his findings could have positive ramifications for people with Alzheimer’s disease.

The college’s faculty also have contributed to a new NSF ADVANCE grant to increase gender equity in STEM. And NSM has joined a consortium of DU programs in everything from engineering to psychology to build a long-term relationship with National Jewish Health that highlights cross-disciplinary research for the public good.  

When Kutateladze joined DU’s faculty in 1995, he saw great promise in the unit’s long-standing focus on research and scholarship. He kept this priority when he became dean in 2012 and has, over the last decade, built on NSM’s research tradition to elevate its national visibility and help DU achieve a significant milestone: attaining Carnegie’s coveted Research 1 (highest research activity) status. 

“In our collective soul-searching, a critical question is often not what to do, but rather what not to do,” Kutateladze says. “It was existentially important for us to identify and carve out competitive niches in various subfields of sciences and mathematics and continue building on our strengths.”

He and his team initially focused on the budding biophysics program, building more competitive startup packages and infrastructure to attract talented faculty. Today, NSM biophysics connects three academic departments and a vibrant community of 19 faculty researchers who have raised more than $26 million in grants over the past five years. 

DU Provost Mary Clark lauds this systematic approach to capitalizing on strengths. “This strategy has allowed NSM to attract top-tier faculty and, by extension, the students who want to study at their sides,” Clark says. “That translates to a dynamic environment of discovery.” 

Building programs that lure talent and contribute high-impact science to the world is not always glamorous work. But, Kutateladze says, “Things like instrumentation and infrastructure improvements, staff support on issues from serving our students to helping with extramural grant applications and providing professional development opportunities are what matter most to our faculty, staff and students. This invisible work—quietly but resolutely supporting excellence where it matters—did produce substantial outcomes and put us on the map in several areas of natural sciences and mathematics.”

Applied research—with immediate, tangible outcomes—certainly has a home in NSM, but fundamental research forms the core of the college’s work. While perhaps less showy, such research informs future generations of scientists in ways that cannot yet be predicted. For example, development of the COVID-19 vaccines was based on novel mRNA methodologies, he says. Before the pandemic, this work was considered largely academic and had not found its practical application. When need arose, this knowledge allowed for expedited development of mRNA vaccines.

Associate professor Mark Siemens revels in the opportunity to conduct foundational research—all while using tools and methodologies that can be replicated in a high school science classroom. He’s exploring novel approaches to quantum computing using photons, even the ones produced by a humble laser pointer. This work captured the attention of the prestigious W.M. Keck Foundation, which awarded Siemens $1 million to continue his work.

In the biological sciences, associate professor Robin Tinghitella researches cricket mating signals. She discovered an unusually fast evolutionary process when she stumbled upon crickets that had abandoned the typical chirp for a quieter purr. This work earned her an NSF CAREER Award, which also supports students’ research in her lab.

Supported by NSF and NIH grants, Kutateladze’s own research on photo-assisted synthesis of complex molecules—primarily of fundamental value—aims to help the National Cancer Institute’s drug development program. Meanwhile, his computational research, which he dubs DU8+, focuses on predicting nuclear magnetic resonance spectra and helps researchers around the globe. While earning international recognition, his work enlists postdoctoral associates, graduate and undergraduate students, and even high school students. 

With the world facing a climate in peril and a deadly pandemic, the value of training a new generation of creative problem-solvers and rigorous thinkers can’t be overstated. 

“No one can predict how the fundamental research work of today’s scientists and mathematicians will be used to create a better future for all of us. What is established for certain is that without these fundamental investments in our common future, the innovation pipelines will dry out,” Kutateladze says. 

“The core mission for any university,” he adds, “is to educate students and to graduate informed citizens. With the world accelerating its pace, we have to prepare students to solve problems which are not formulated yet and help them be ready for the jobs that do not even exist. Research projects develop exactly the kind of problem-solving skills that our students will need to navigate and lead in this rapidly changing world.”

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