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Grace Spatafora speaks with Sunho Park '18, a member of her research team. Spatafora is one of only 13 faculty members at small liberal arts institutions nationwide to earn an NIH RO1 grant.

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Biologist Grace Spatafora Awarded NIH Research Grant of $2.1 Million

July 19, 2017


MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), part of 
the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has awarded a grant of $2.1 million to Grace Spatafora, a professor of biology whose research focuses on how S. mutans, an oral bacterium, causes tooth decay. The five-year grant, which will go into effect August 1, will fund the research of at least 15 Middlebury undergraduates, or three students per year, through 2022. Spatafora is one of only 13 faculty members at small liberal arts institutions nationwide to earn an NIH research project grant, known as an NIH RO1 grant; the NIH awards the majority of its R01 grants to large research-intensive universities.

Annie Cowan ’18 selects colonies of S. mutans for subsequent analysis in Grace Spatafora’s lab.

“To know we are on the same playing field as graduate programs at Tufts, University of  Pennsylvania, and Stanford is very gratifying,” said Spatafora. “It speaks volumes as to what undergrads can do. Many scientists at large research institutions think that undergrads can’t do real science.  Well, I know that undergrads can do real science. You just have to treat them like real scientists.” 

The new grant is the third of three NIH R01 awards that Spatafora has received since 2004, all aimed at studying S. mutans and how it contributes to oral health and disease. “Oral health is essential to overall health and quality of life,” said Spatafora, “and we need to narrow the gap between children and adults with oral disease who are predominantly from groups with lower socioeconomic status.” Her first R01 was for $500,000 in 2004 and her second was for $1.2 million in 2009. To Spatafora’s knowledge, she is the only faculty member at Middlebury to be awarded an NIH R01 grant of this magnitude and to sustain such an award for three consecutive grant terms.

Richard Brach ’16.5, laboratory research
assistant, talks with Grace Spatafora.

Spatafora’s goal is to better understand the interaction of an S. mutans protein with DNA, and how hindering that interaction might lead to the development of a compound that could block the formation of dental cavities. “We are getting closer to designing a small molecule that can essentially lock this protein onto the DNA, thereby reducing the potential to cause decay by S. mutans without disturbing the natural oral ecology of the mouth,” she said.

Tooth decay continues to be a major problem in developed and developing nations. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), it impacts 60–90 percent of children worldwide. The WHO also found that nearly 100 percent of adult Americans have experienced tooth decay in their permanent teeth, contributing to the nation’s estimated costs for dental treatment of more than $95.2 billion in 2012. 

Spatafora is particularly excited about the research opportunities that the new grant provides for Middlebury students. Research projects pertaining to S. mutans will be available to undergraduates during both the summer and academic year through 2022. Students can also opt to travel to national and international conferences to present the results of their senior work, as well as coauthor manuscripts for publication in top-tier peer-reviewed journals. They will have access to high-end equipment and technologies as well. 

Grace Spatafora and Alexander Pastora ’18 
freeze a strain of S. mutans in liquid nitrogen
for storage at –80 degrees centigrade. 

“The students are committed to the research process and they’re technically skilled,” added Spatafora. “When they graduate, many of them are hired by my colleagues in industry, and in labs at large research institutions where they do very well. When they leave those labs to go on to graduate or medical school, my colleagues call to ask, ‘Have you got anyone else?’ They appreciate our students’ abilities.”

To obtain the grant, Spatafora wrote and submitted a 25-page research proposal which was part of a 134-page application to the NIH last summer. She made a point to showcase the work that was conducted by students under the second grant. 

“Middlebury’s outstanding reputation in the sciences and its commitment to undergraduate research combined with the cutting-edge technologies that are available to us here in McCardell Bicentennial Hall all make the College a strong contender for NIH R01 grants,” said Spatafora.

This summer Spatafora is working in the lab with four members of the Class of 2018–Annie Cowan, Alexander Pastora, Sunho Park, and Zack Peters. Richard Brach, a 2016.5 graduate who is also part of her research team, is serving for one year as a laboratory research technician. 

“While working with Dr. Spatafora this summer, I have learned how to think critically and creatively when designing and applying molecular genetics protocols and techniques,” said Cowan. “I have also gained an increased patience and respect for science itself, an attitude I cannot imagine myself obtaining anywhere else. There is excitement about generating a flawless gel image after days of imperfect trials, and Dr. Spatafora’s enthusiasm about the result is contagious.”

“I often find myself living vicariously through my students,” said Spatafora. “They have gone on to earn MDs, PhDs, or both, and many of them have published their research in prestigious scientific journals such as Cell, Nature, and Science, publications where my work has not appeared. Some of my students are on the faculty at colleges and universities, and I often meet up with them at scientific conferences. I love the combination of teaching and research, but ultimately what motivates me in the lab is my students, and witnessing their development as independent scientists while at Middlebury and beyond.”

-Photos by Todd Balfour

4 Comments

Grace: Congratulations on your new NIH grant. Not an easy thing to do in today's funding environment . Great that you are keeping the S. mutans flag flying!

by Howard Kuramitsu (not verified)

Congrats Dr. S! What great news!

by Kevin (not verified)

Congratulations Grace!

by Bob Osborne (not verified)

Congratulations, Dr. S! This is fantastic and most-deserved! –David

by Dr. David Zappulla (not verified)

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