MSU professor nets $1.8M grant

Fitzkee (Submitted photo)

Staff Writer

A Mississippi State University faculty member has received a prestigious $1.8 million five-year grant to study the impact of bacterial proteins attaching to surfaces has on public health.

Nick Fitzkee, an assistant professor in the MSU Department of Chemistry, received the National Institutes of Health RO1 grant June1, and has already begunresearch. The RO1 grant is the oldest grant mechanism awarded by NIH, and provides support for a specified, circumscribed project for research and development in the health field. Fitzkee’s project is titled “The Structure, Orientation and Competitive Reactions of S. epidermidis biofilm proteins on surfaces.” The project investigates how the proteins interact with and attach to plastic and glass surfaces.

“Over the past five years or so, we’ve been trying to understand how proteins interact with nanoparticle surfaces, so we’ve developed some new techniques and new methods for characterizing how proteins interact with surfaces, and how in particular, how proteins in mixtures will compete for nanoparticle surfaces, interacting with surfaces,” he said.

Fitzkee said the project funded by the grant would take the lab’s current, basic work, and turn it into something more applied. He said applications of the research could include a better understanding of sanitation in hospital-associated infections from implanted medical devices.

“Now that we’ve developed the toolbox for studying protein-surface interactions we’d like to take that toolbox and apply it to something that we think has the real clinical relevance and importance.”

Fitzkee said he would lead a team of seven or eight for the project, including two or three graduate students, two postdoctoral and some undergraduates. Fitzkee said it was important for him to involve undergraduates in his research, and emphasized the importance of the research team as a whole.

“Whenever you’re faced with a project like this, you’re definitely sobered by the amount of work that you have to do, and this is going to take a lot of hard work from all of using the lab and in my group,” Fitzkee said. He also acknowledged past graduate students from his lab, who laid the groundwork for the R01.

“That’s really what makes this possible,” Fitzkee said. “We had a whole host of students who worked in the lab over the past five years that have contributed in various ways to the software that we use, to the methods that we use. As a faculty member, I have to teach. I have to do service stuff. There’s all sorts of requirements on my time, so the people who are actually in the lab day-to-day are the graduate students and the undergraduate students.”

Fitzkee said the project was originally slated to begin in August, but was currently underway.

“Once it went through scientific review, they said ‘well, let’s just start it,’ so they actually started up at the beginning of this month,” Fitzkee said

.FItzkee said the project fell under the heading of physical chemistry, but incorporated several disciplines, including biology.

”There is biology here,” Fitzkee said. “There’s chemistry. There’s physical technique methodology that we’re applying. We have to bring a lot of experience. That’s why it’s a team project, because so many disciplines and subdisciplines are involved.”

Fitzkee has served on faculty at MSU since 2011. He holds a bachelor’s in computational physics from Carnegie Mellon University and a doctorate in biophysics from Johns Hopkins University. Prior to the NIH RO1 Grant, FItzkee has worked with other grants from the NIH, Henry Family Foundation and National Science Foundation.

“Dr. Fitzkee is making deep impressions on the academic community that works at the intersection of chemistry, biology and physics,” said College of Arts and Sciences Dean Rick Travis. “He is clearly becoming one of the university’s leading researchers, and his work is helping to increase our national reputation.”