Fayetteville State University Professor Part of $20 Million NSF Award to Support Center to Study How Complex Biological Processes Arise

Date: May 06, 2024

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. - A Fayetteville State University faculty member is a part of securing a $20 million dollar grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) to support the establishment and operation of the National Synthesis Center for Emergence in the Molecular and Cellular Sciences (NCEMS) at Penn State University.

Justin Graham, Ph.D., assistant professor at Fayetteville State University, serves as the Minority Serving Institution Liaison for NCEMS. His role focuses on MSI partnerships with the center.

“I am excited to emphasize the crucial role of MSIs in our collaboration with Penn State and the NSF," said Graham. "MSIs contribute vital perspectives, connecting with marginalized communities and fostering sustainable scientific partnerships. We aim to enrich this initiative with our diverse insights and expertise, ensuring NCEMS' success and showcasing the importance of inclusive collaboration in advancing research and benefiting society.”

The center will enable research that uses existing, publicly available data to glean new insights about how complex biological systems, such as cells, emerge from simpler molecules. Findings from the research could eventually inform the development of disease treatments and other applications such as minimizing the negative effects of aging.

“This is a huge accomplishment for Fayetteville State University, Dr. Graham and the entire NCEMS leadership team” said Afua Arhin, Ph.D., dean of FSU's Lloyd College of Health, Science and Technology. “His drive to build collaborations to provide opportunities and access for FSU students and the university is a true definition of res no verba, deeds not words.”

The center will be based at Penn State’s University Park campus with cyber infrastructure provided by the University of Arizona’s CyVerse initiative, the world’s largest publicly funded open-source cyber infrastructure for life sciences. Involving more than 1,600 scientists from across the nation and the world, the center will feature a strong outreach component, including multiple partnerships with minority-serving institutions, to offer workshops, training events, and research-based learning opportunities to build a future workforce skilled in computational, data and life sciences.

“Many of the grand challenges in biology, such as how living organisms function well in a dynamic environment or suffer dysfunction and disease, are rooted in the mesoscale," said Ed O’Brien, NCEMS director and Penn State professor of chemistry. “We have a unique opportunity to harness big data and gain a more complete, detailed view of the mosaic of molecular and cellular processes by bringing together diverse datasets and multidisciplinary teams of scientists from across the world.”

O’Brien added that NCEMS will involve the wider community by carrying out team and open science and encouraging collaboration through cloud-based cyberinfrastructure, as well as providing training in the essential elements of data science, machine learning and statistics. The center will also offer nationwide opportunities to participate in research remotely, as well as build a cohort of underrepresented minority undergraduates involved in center research and support their professional development.

NCEMS will work to broaden participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, both to democratize access to research and provide training for careers rich in computational and data sciences. Several internship positions will be available to students from minority serving institutions including the initial NCEMS partner institutions of Claflin University, Alcorn State University and Fayetteville State University. The center will manage a National Remote Research Experience to support research during the school year that will be open to anyone across the country.

"The amount of publicly available data at the molecular and cellular scale is extensive, with each individual resource being valuable. Bringing those data together with the tools to synthesize them ― as this center is planned to do ― will create a whole greater than the parts and will drive advances in biology, biomedicine, renewable energy and more," said NSF Deputy Assistant Director for Biological Sciences Simon Malcomber. "This is the first time we will bring this approach to the molecular and cellular sciences and bring NSF's long history of support for Synthesis Centers to bear on the field."

For more information, please visit the NCEMS website at ncems.psu.edu.

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