Aaron Leconte, assistant professor of chemistry at the W.M. Keck Science Department, a collaboration between Claremont McKenna, Pitzer, and Scripps Colleges, has been awarded a three-year early career grant from the Research Corporation for Scientific Advancement. The $100,000 Cottrell Award will support Leconte’s research on the protein luciferase, a luminescent material produced by the North American firefly that can be used to track and record biological events and processes to better understand cancer, bacterial infections, and more.
“Bioluminescence is very useful, but it could definitely be improved to create even more sensitive, precise and reliable imaging techniques,” Leconte notes. “There is a long list of enzyme properties that scientists would love to be able to tweak, but proteins are incredibly complex machines. We are working hard to think creatively about how to best tune these proteins to the needs of the field.”
The North American firefly (Photinus pyralis), also known as the “lightning bug,” gets its name from the fact that it glows and flickers in the evenings. This glowing, or bioluminescence, comes from a chemical reaction that is performed by the luciferase protein.
The Cottrell grant supports the protein engineering work in Leconte’s lab and the study of luciferase in the classroom, and also provides an extraordinary opportunity for undergraduate research to help engage and build a new generation of scientists.
“The program will give first-year undergraduate students an opportunity to participate in cutting-edge research and will fund opportunities for the students to interact with other scientists working on luciferase,” Leconte said. “I am excited that it can help jumpstart the research careers of young scientists.”
This is the first year that the Cottrell Scholar Award has been awarded to faculty from primarily undergraduate institutions. Leconte is one of eight faculty from primarily undergraduate institutions, among the 24 scholars receiving the awards in 2016.
For more information on the 2016 Cottrell Award, please visit Research Corporation for Scientific Advancement.