Doing the "Samba": NatSci's Kristin Parent awarded MSU's first PATH grant

  • Jun 12, 2019
  • Burroughs Wellcome PATH Award, Faculty, human-pathogen interactions, Samba Virus, pathogenesis
  • Homepage Hero, Alumni, Faculty & Staff, Research, Students, Biochemistry, College of Natural Science

What do a Michigan State University Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BMB) assistant professor, a biochemistry graduate student and a goliath virus have in common? Tremendous persistence that leads to success.

Image of JAson Schrad nd Kristin Parent in Parent's lab
Graduate student Jason Schrad (left) and Kristin Parent pose next to a Talos Arctica microscope, a specialized instrument that images frozen samples to provide atomic level molecular structures. Photo by John A. Dover.

Kristin Parent, J.K. Billman, Jr. M.D. Endowed Research Professor, received a 2019 Burroughs Wellcome Fund Investigators in the Pathogenesis of Infections Disease (PATH) award, a 5-year grant totaling $500,000, to study an enormous virus known as the Samba virus.

This marks the first time a professor from MSU has won the PATH award, one of the most prestigious and highly competitive grants funding research into human-pathogen interactions in the United States.

“The PATH grant proposal process takes over a year, including a pre-grant proposal, a written formal proposal and an in-person interview in North Carolina,” said Parent, who has applied for the PATH grant for three consecutive years. “When you get to the interview stage and meet all of the other scientists, you realize how many really talented folks are out there, so to be listed among them is a real honor.”

“We had gotten through several years of research and work on this project with minimal funding and brute force,” said BMB graduate student Jason Schrad, who has been working in the Parent lab for the last six years, and whose thesis work is the nucleus of the successful grant proposal. “The PATH grant validates all those years of hard work and affirms that this is an important project.”

Founded in 1955, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund began supporting promising investigators who study pathogenesis with a focus on the interplay between human and microbial biology in 2000. The program gives recipients freedom to pursue new avenues of inquiry and higher risk research projects that hold potential for advancing the understanding of how infectious diseases work.

“Appointment as a Burroughs Wellcome Investigator is among the highest honors for an early to mid-career researcher,” said Erich Grotewold, BMB chair. “We congratulate Kristin for this outstanding accomplishment and look forward to her continuing success as she joins a cohort of fellow awardees that includes several eminent scientists in the area of infectious diseases.”

Parent was the driving force behind MSU purchasing one of the most advanced cryo-electron microscopes available—the Talos Arctica—a specialized instrument that images frozen samples to provide atomic level molecular structures. The cutting-edge technique is known as electron cryo-microscopy, or cryo-EM, a technique that computationally knits together hundreds of thousands of 2D images into 3D structures. This technique can create models of viruses and proteins previously obtainable only using X-ray crystallography.

The PATH award, which officially begins July 1, will inject money into Parent’s cryo-EM research into the giant Samba virus’ never-before-seen mechanistic ability to attach and infect a host.

Image of Jason Shrad freezing samples in the lab
Jason Schrad freezing Samba viruses in liquid ethane, which is part of preparing the grids for cryo-EM data collection. Photo by John A. Dover.

“These viruses are huge and super stable and, unlike normal viruses, can survive crazy environments,” Schrad said. “A related virus frozen in permafrost for 30,000 years thawed out and was still infectious. They can survive high alkaline lakes in Brazil and persist in barren plains in Antarctica.”

Parent will be able to use the PATH grant to progress techniques in cryo-EM, developing creative ways to image the giant viruses, uncovering the basic cellular biology of how the viruses work and advancing the scientific understanding of viruses’ core features along with basic science on how pathogens persist in extreme environments.

“Cryo-EM will transform structural biology like Next-Generation Sequencing transformed genomics—democratizing the field so that any biologist can determine and use protein structures in their research,” said Dave DeWitt, NatSci senior associate dean. “MSU is fortunate to have someone with Kristin’s scientific acumen, energy and leadership; this facility would not exist except for her efforts.”

“The cryo-EM microscope is installed and is being fine-tuned,” Parent said. “When the new MSU Cryo-EM facility is fully functional with a new director, it will attract new faculty and be available to all researchers at MSU. “Receiving the PATH grant is transformative for the establishment of the facility, for our collaborators in Brazil, and for Jason’s and other graduate students’ futures as scientists.”

With support from the PATH grant, collaborator Juliana Reis Cortines, associate professor at Brazil’s Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, will be able to visit the Parent Lab and learn cryo-EM techniques.

For more information about the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and the 2019 PATH award winners, please visit:


Banner image: Cryo-EM image of the colossal Samba virus. Photo by John A. Dover (technician in the Parent laboratory).

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