Program rewards up-and-coming profs

The McKnight Land-Grant Professorship program gives professors an opportunity to extend their research.

Emily Ayshford

When performing MRIs on children for her research, University child development professor Kathleen Thomas said children often ask what she sees in the images.

“They ask, ‘Can you tell what I’m thinking?’ ” she said.

Thomas is one of nine professors appointed to the McKnight Land-Grant Professorship, a program that rewards up-and-coming professors who have earned their doctoral degrees in the last seven years.

The program provides professors $25,000 per year for two years, along with a year of paid leave from teaching.

Thomas said she will use the money to supplement her studies about how a child’s brain affects its development.

Using MRIs and other scanning methods, Thomas measures the location and amount of brain activity in children while they do certain activities, such as look at pictures of faces, she said.

She also studies how memory and attention span relate to brain activity.

Thomas said she mostly studies children ages 6 to 10, which means they often have trouble staying still for half-hour scans.

In order to get them used to lying in a tube, children lie first in a simulator MRI. Thomas said researchers also show them movies and let them play games to try to make it a fun environment.

She said it’s important to establish trust between the researchers and the children.

“That’s 90 percent of the battle,” she said.

Thomas said although kids are often nervous in the beginning, they are happy when they receive an image of their brain.

“They’re excited to see their brains,” she said. “It’s great for show and tell.”

Thomas said she plans to use her grant money to run MRIs, fund the research of a graduate student to aid her and buy other equipment she might need.

“There is so much we don’t understand about early childhood development,” she said.

Joachim Mueller received a McKnight Land-Grant Professorship to continue his study of protein interactions in living cells.

Mueller uses fluorescence fluctuation spectroscopy and correlation analysis to study nuclear receptors and other protein interactions.

“It’s a new way of looking at behavior,” he said.

Mueller said he hopes his quantitative research of complex cell behavior will help fight diseases such as cancer, obesity and Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“It would be of enormous benefit to know how cells work on the level of individual biomolecules,” Mueller said.

With the help of lasers, Mueller uses an optical technique that creates a small optical volume – ideal for examining molecules, he said. He then studies fluctuations in the fluorescence signals and how protein interactions relate to those fluctuations.

Mueller, who has been a University professor since 2000, said he plans to use his research money to hire a graduate student to aid him. He said he also plans to use his paid leave to study biology, which will complement his current research.

The professorship appointments begin July 1.