Digging into DNA: Biology Professor Wins $780K NSF Award for Genetics Research

biology at the College of the Holy Cross, has been awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER award for the amount of $780,902 through 2021.

The award is given through the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program, which offers the NSF’s most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty. The program is designed to support faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholar through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.

“NSF CAREER awards are extremely competitive and are often awarded to the most promising early-career faculty members at the nation's top research institutions,” says Kenneth Mills, professor of chemistry and associate dean of the faculty at Holy Cross. “It is a particular honor to be awarded a CAREER award at a liberal arts college, and this identifies Geoff as one of the country's top emerging teacher-scholars.”

Findlay’s research, titled "Functional and evolutionary analysis of ‘de novo’ evolved genes in Drosophila male reproduction," aims to determine how newly evolved genes in the common fruit fly improve the function of male sperm. While the specific genes Findlay is investigating exist only in fruit flies, one of his goals is to demonstrate the importance of such species-specific genes. By doing so, he hopes to illustrate that such lineage-restricted genes could also be important in other fly species that are agricultural pests and mosquito species that transmit diseases such as malaria and the Zika virus.

The research, conducted at an exclusively undergraduate institution, has already seen success. Findlay recently published an article in Molecular Biology and Evolution on two of the genes studied in his lab. The study included three Holy Cross student coauthors: Anna Gubala ’16, Michael Kearns ’16, and Tery Vinh ’15.

With the NSF award funding his research for the next five years, Findlay will be able to significantly scale up the project.

“This initial study provides a strong proof of concept that these species-specific genes can be important for male reproduction,” says Findlay. “However, we have only tested about 20 percent of the new genes that are expressed in the male reproductive system. With this NSF funding, we will be able to look at the rest of the new genes to see how many are essential for fertility and really understand what roles the essential genes play in the making of sperm.”

Undergraduate students will continue to play a central role in this research. Findlay currently works with a team of nine students in his research lab, and the grant will allow several of them to work full time in the lab during the summer. The grant also provides funding for over 30 students to engage in original research in the classroom as part of the genetics course he teaches each fall. This past fall, the classroom research resulted in the discovery of a third essential gene that Findlay’s research lab is now characterizing.

“Being able to work closely with undergraduate students and nurture their development as scientists is one of the main reasons I wanted to work at a liberal arts college,” says Findlay. “This project absolutely relies on student researchers, and I’ve been very fortunate to work with such strong students here at Holy Cross.”

The funding will also support two Holy Cross programs that seek to broaden participation in science from traditionally underrepresented groups. Findlay’s lab participates in the First-Year Research Advancement Program, in which first-year students join research labs immediately upon their arrival on campus. These students get hands-on experience with scientific research and also build a community with one another and with upper-class mentors in their labs. The second program, X CHROM, is a newly launched, student-led effort to provide mentoring and tutoring in science and math to female students in Worcester public high schools. These students come to campus each week for one-on-one mentoring with Holy Cross women majoring in a STEM discipline, and X CHROM is currently planning to host high school students from Worcester on campus this spring for its first annual Women in Science Day.

Findlay, who earned his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in genome sciences, joined the Holy Cross faculty in 2013.