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Rensselaer Professor Cynthia Collins Receives NSF CAREER Award

April 21, 2011

Rensselaer Professor Cynthia Collins Receives NSF CAREER Award

Young Faculty Researcher To Develop New Microbial Communities for Medical and Industrial Applications

Cynthia Collins

Cynthia Collins, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has won a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development Award (CAREER) from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Collins will use the five-year, approximately $536,000 award to develop systems for coordinating the behaviors of microbes in entirely new types of engineered microbial communities. In the future, Collins envisions the use of such microbial communities as a platform for the production of pharmaceuticals and other important products.

“We are exceptionally proud of Dr. Collins for being named an NSF CAREER Award recipient,” said David Rosowsky, dean of the School of Engineering at Rensselaer. “Cynthia is on the leading edge of biotechnology research, and a rising star in the areas of developing of new bioprocesses and increasing our fundamental understanding of both beneficial and dangerous types of microbial communities. We are thrilled that Cynthia is among the ranks of our many impressive NSF CAREER award recipients, and we look forward to her continued success at Rensselaer.”

Collins CAREER program, titled “Engineering Interspecies Communication and Synthetic Microbial Consortia,” will work to develop new biotechnology tools using specialized communities of microorganisms that are comprised of multiple types of microbes. Such new forms of microbial communities would have applications for the creation of new chemicals, be used to develop new drugs, and play a role in the removal of hazardous materials. 

“The project is focused around the concept that a community comprised of different types of microbes can do much more than a community comprised of a single organism,” said Collins. “By combining different types of organisms in the same community, you can utilize the strength of each organism to achieve outcomes that are more than the sum of the individual parts.”

The first step in this process is communication. As with humans, in order to have a community of different types of microbes work together effectively, they must be able to communicate with each other. Collins will use this new funding to get two very different and widely used types of microbes to communicate with each other – Escherichia coli and Bacillus megaterium. Such interspecies communication, which involves the sending and receiving of chemical signals between organisms, has never yet been achieved with these two very different organisms.

The CAREER Award is given to faculty members at the beginning of their academic careers and is one of the NSF’s most competitive awards, placing emphasis on high-quality research and novel education initiatives.

Collins joined Rensselaer in 2008 from the University of Calgary, where she served as a postdoctoral researcher. She received her bachelor’s degree in chemistry and biochemistry from the University of Toronto and her doctoral degree in biochemistry and molecular biophysics from the California Institute of Technology. She is a member of the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies at Rensselaer.

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Phone: (518) 276-6542


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Founded in 1824, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is America’s first technological research university. Rensselaer encompasses five schools, 32 research centers, more than 145 academic programs, and a dynamic community made up of more than 7,600 students and more than 100,000 living alumni. Rensselaer faculty and alumni include more than 145 National Academy members, six members of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, six National Medal of Technology winners, five National Medal of Science winners, and a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. With nearly 200 years of experience advancing scientific and technological knowledge, Rensselaer remains focused on addressing global challenges with a spirit of ingenuity and collaboration.