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Assistant Professor Doug Risser works with cyanobacteria.

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Science and Technology

Biological Sciences professor snags $300,000 federal grant

Jan 16, 2018

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $298,000 grant to Assistant Professor Doug Risser in the Department of Biological Sciences to fund research that could help develop biofuel production and fertilizer replacement.

Risser studies filamentous cyanobacteria, which are some of the oldest multicellular organisms on Earth. They are similar to plants in that they harness sunlight for energy. Risser's research focuses on the genetic mechanism that controls the development of specialized filaments called hormogonium that are capable of movement.   

Risser's research is aimed at understanding how those cyanobacteria change, so that scientists one day can engineer changes.  

"There's a lot of applied science where people are trying to do things like genetic engineering in order to take these cyanobacteria and turn them into things that produce biofuels and other useful biological compounds," Risser said.  

In some cases, filamentous cyanobacteria make a specialized cell that can take nitrogen gas out of the air and convert it into organic compounds that it can use to grow. Scientists believe there is potential to manipulate those organisms to form a symbiotic relationship with some crops and eliminate the need for fertilizer.  

The three-year grant also funds a second component, aimed at supporting science education in the community. The grant will pay for stipends for two summer research undergraduate students who will be recruited specifically from Pacific's Community Involvement Program, which provides comprehensive need-based scholarships and retention programs for first-generation college students from Stockton. In addition to laboratory research, those students will take mobile equipment to middle schools in San Joaquin County to demonstrate experiments.  

"They'll be on the front line going out there with this really neat, portable fluorescent microscope and teaching middle school students about cell biology and allowing them to see some cool technology and get some hands-on experience with things that they don't normally get a chance to do," Risser said.  

Grants from the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency that support research and education in nonmedical field of science and engineering, are among the most competitive, Risser said. He applied three times before his project was approved.  

"It takes a lot of time and effort and a lot of tries to get this," Risser said. "Certainly I think that is a feather in the cap for the university."     

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