Centenary College professor wins National Science Foundation grant

Mariam Abo-Zahrah, a student in Dr. Rebecca Murphy's genetics class, uses the Cyverse Discovery Environment app to look for RNAs during a test run of the new software.

SHREVEPORT, LA — Dr. Rebecca Murphy, associate professor of biology and chair of the biology department at Centenary, has been awarded a major grant from the National Science Foundation to design and implement an innovative plant biology curriculum at the College. The grant, a collaboration between Murphy and two scientists at the University of Arizona, will split $473,600 between the two schools over two years to fund research and hands-on training in the field of bioinformatics.

Murphy worked with Dr. Andrew Nelson and Dr. Upendra Devisetty at the University of Arizona on the successful grant proposal, which includes a $42,345 sub award allowing her to design and implement a curriculum called LIVE (LncRNA Identification and Validation Exercise) for Plants. Currently, Centenary does not have an efficient way for students to gain this type of training, so the updated teaching tools and course models that Murphy will develop will benefit students well beyond the two year duration of the grant.

“The goal of this curriculum is to have students use a free browser-based application created by Dr. Nelson and Dr. Devisetty to mine existing data from a set of plants – like sorghum, corn, or tomato – to find a specific type of ribonucleic acid (RNA) from a pool of every other type of RNA that the plants are producing,” explains Murphy. “The rationale for partnering with Arizona is that Dr. Nelson is skilled in bioinformatics, specifically analyzing the very large data sets that come from full genome or transcription sequencing. It is becoming increasingly important for students to gain exposure to bioinformatics training if they plan to pursue any type of scientific career.”

Murphy, Nelson, and Devisetty will also be working to develop a “wet bench” component to complement the computer-based portion of the project, which will allow students to take the data and explore further in a lab setting. Murphy is especially excited about the potential for research and training that will come about as a result of the grant award.

“The best part of this grant is that it provides funds for me to get hands-on training at the University of Arizona for two summers, and we will also be able to support two Centenary students each year to work there as well,” says Murphy. “Not only will they receive training for the most current techniques, they will also be involved in a real research question with real implications for the scientific community. LncRNAs are a relatively new field of study, and they have been thought to be involved with many aspects of plant development, including temperature sensing – a function plant scientists are very interested in as we consider how global temperature changes may influence agriculture and food production. This is a great opportunity for me as an educator and a scientist, but it also will provide Centenary students with an immersive experience as they work alongside career research scientists to help solve real world problems.”

The National Science Foundation grant builds on Murphy’s previous work to involve her Centenary students in hands-on science research and education. She has created a research group, Children of the Sorghum, to study Sorghum bicolor, an important food and feed crop that is recognized as an important source of bioenergy. Murphy’s students assist with research in breeding, germplasm screens, and genetic techniques to further understand Sorghum bicolor and its potential as a renewable biofuel.