Dr. Ben Stein, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Tennessee of Chattanooga, has been on the faculty for a little more than a year.
It’s the first faculty position he’s held in higher education.
In February, he filed a grant proposal for more than $322,000 from the National Institutes of Health. It’s the first time he’s applied for a grant of any kind.
In August, he learned he got it. His first reaction?
“Disbelief,” he said. “It was a surprise. It was very exciting.”
Stein was awarded a $322,375 grant from the NIH for a project titled, “Characterization of non-canonical regulatory pathways in the Caulobacter NtrYX signaling system.” The NIH Research Enhancement Award, known as an R15, is only the second received by a UTC faculty member in recent years.
Stein, who received a bachelor’s degree from Brown University in 2010 and a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2016, will be researching how bacterium adapt to changing environments. Knowing how the process works may eventually help in the prevention or treatment of diseases in both humans and animals, he said.
Understanding the process also may help in agriculture since bacteria are both positive and negative components in plant growth.
Stein said that the three-year NIH grant pays for six undergraduate students to work in the lab-based study, which is a mixture of biochemistry and microbiology.
“It’s a large sum for undergraduate-focused lab research,” he said. “For a university that has six graduate students to support, this might not be as huge, but for us, it’s absolutely big.”
The study builds on scientific evidence that, whether they’re in humans, animals or soil, disease-causing bacteria can alter themselves to adapt and thrive inside their hosts.
“It’s kind of analogous to us. We get burned on the stove; we send signals to our brain; we move our hand away,” Stein said. “If something infects us, the environment changes for that organism and it needs to adapt.”
He explained that proteins on the outer edge of each bacteria regularly talk to proteins on the inside through chemical signals. As the environment around the bacteria changes, the outside proteins alert those inside. In turn, those proteins send signals that eventually lead to the bacteria’s DNA—telling it to change to deal with the new environment.
Much of that process is understood, Stein said, but there’s still a lot to be learned.
“These systems have been studied for decades, and there’s a lot known about them. A lot of great scientists have worked on them,” he said. “But what I think we’ve come to realize over the past decades of research is that we have this very simple model, but it’s very rarely that simple in any one system.”
Studying bacteria is very familiar to Stein, a native of Ithaca, New York. As a doctoral student at MIT, he focused on proteins that help target obsolete proteins for destruction.
After earning his Ph.D., he worked in postdoctoral research at Michigan State University and the University of Chicago. His work on bacterium there was a stepping stone to pursuing faculty positions.
Stein applied for the job at UTC for a couple of reasons.
“I wanted to work with a mix of students,” he said, “and I liked the urban environment of UTC as well.”