By Stella Katsipoutis-Varkanis

When bioorganic chemist Michael Bertucci found out last January that he was a recipient of a National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) award, he was left speechless. “It was a moment in my life I’ll never forget,” he says.

With only 500 being awarded in the U.S. annually, CAREER awards—which support early-career faculty in their research and educational endeavors—are among the most prestigious and competitive grants given by the NSF. Bertucci, who received a five-year grant totaling nearly $500,000 while he was teaching at Moravian University last year, transferred his award to Lafayette when he started his new position as assistant professor of chemistry at the College in the fall 2021 semester.

Since then, Bertucci has been hard at work utilizing the funds to not only study cell-to-cell communication in bacteria and provide students the opportunity to get hands-on experience with cutting-edge research, but also develop innovative educational programs for Lafayette and the higher ed community at large.

Bertucci’s research—which is being conducted alongside his students—is centered on examining the molecules that regulate communication in Lactobacilli, the “good” bacteria found in consumable goods like yogurt and probiotics, and their role in human health.

Bacteria, Bertucci explains, communicate through a process called quorum sensing, in which chemical signals enable bacteria to work in groups rather than individually. “When [bad] bacteria turn on a process all at the same time, it can lead to infection and make you sick,” he says. “A lot of research in this area tends to focus on the negative effects of bacteria, as it should; but what’s interesting about this study is that it’s an opportunity to harness and amplify the positive impacts of good bacteria and make them more helpful in treating conditions like gastrointestinal disease. And the idea of educating students through research, and getting them excited about studying chemistry and the translation of chemistry into other fields like microbiology, I think, is really exciting.”

In addition to allowing students to gain valuable real-world experience with scientific research, Bertucci’s grant will help fund various educational activities for students, such as conference attendance, enhanced scientific literacy and engagement through social media, and a peer mentorship program that connects first-year students with available research opportunities within the Chemistry Department. Finally, it will also aid the newly established Institute for Future PUI Faculty, which invites graduate and postdoctoral students from across the country interested in pursuing careers as professors at predominantly undergraduate institutions (PUIs) to visit Lafayette and gain exposure to the PUI environment.

“Five grad and postdoc students will spend two weeks at Lafayette this April and participate in an immersive training program,” Bertucci says. “They’ll be mentored by faculty members within the Chemistry Department, participate in workshops run by the Hanson Center for Inclusive STEM Education and our Center for the Integration of Teaching, Learning, and Scholarship, and they’re going to teach a couple of classes here. Not only will it be really fun, but I think it will have a significant impact on the grad/postdoc students and our undergraduates. Having the visitors here to engage with our students can inspire them to see themselves going to grad school or getting their Ph.D.”

Bertucci hopes his award will lead to even more programs and opportunities that will continue to enhance the Lafayette student experience, the College’s Chemistry Department, and the higher ed field for many years to come.

“Lafayette’s chemistry program is a standout program for undergraduates nationally,” he says, “and I hope this [grant] helps bring more attention to it. Our students are engaged and excited to learn, and that makes me really excited to teach. We are getting really busy and we have a lot of work to do, and I think we’re going to get some great results.”


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