Rutgers University–Camden Biophysicist Making Contributions to Computational Research

Grace Brannigan

Grace Brannigan

Grace Brannigan is quickly making an impact on the scientific community through innovative computational biophysics research.

An assistant professor of physics at Rutgers University–Camden, Brannigan is a recipient of a 2015 Cottrell College Science Award — given to only 33 early career scientists around the country, including two from Rutgers–Camden — and is part of collaborative research effort funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to better understand general anesthetics.

“Computational biophysics has grown considerably over the past several decades, but it hasn’t been until recently that we’ve had the technology to look at more realistic systems involving many components,” explains Brannigan, a Philadelphia resident.

Brannigan is at the forefront of significant, collaborative computational biophysics research being conducted on the Rutgers–Camden campus. For her Cottrell Award research, the Rutgers–Camden scholar is using computational analysis to examine how cholesterol — an important part of cell membranes in the central nervous system — impacts protein organization in a cell, which in turn can lead to health risks.

Under an additional NIH grant, for which funding was renewed this year, Brannigan is using computer simulations and three-dimensional modeling of proteins to understand how anesthetics bind with them, which is crucial to improving and developing new anesthetics.

A third research project, funded by the National Science Foundation, takes a closer look at the GABA(A) receptor, a protein fundamental to our understanding of the brain. The work could uncover various treatments for neurological disorders.

“The number of unanswered biological questions in which computational researchers can make significant contributions is dramatically increasing, and there are many other areas of computational science coming to the forefront. There’s still a lot of exciting work to be done,” Brannigan says.

While rapid advances in available technology for research have resulted in an exciting period of discovery for many STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), many students initially drawn to STEM careers leave before getting to take part in these discoveries.

Recent studies indicate that women leave STEM career paths at particularly high rates, resulting in steadily decreased representation at more advanced career stages. Increasing focus on improving the STEM experience for women aims to counter this trend.

As a female scientist excelling in her field, Brannigan sees a need to retain more women who excel in STEM fields in early adulthood.

“When I was in high school, there were many talented girls in very advanced math and science classes that majored in non-STEM fields when they went to college,” Brannigan says. “The most straightforward way to increase the number of qualified women at any STEM career level is probably better retention of women who have already demonstrated a strong interest and aptitude in science.”

She continues, “Many women continue to leave STEM fields to pursue other careers — this is often called the ‘leaky pipeline’ — and I think improvements in retention could go far in obtaining a better balance.”

At Rutgers University–Camden, Brannigan teaches in the Department of Physics and the Center for Computational and Integrative Biology, which combines traditional biomedical disciplines with quantitative methods to research biological systems. She says the number of women in her graduate-level courses fluctuate from year to year, but “we’ve had a good record of bringing women into our CCIB program at Rutgers–Camden.”

“In my experience, many women I know who have continued in scientific careers have come from smaller colleges or universities, and therefore have had more support from the faculty,” Brannigan says. “At Rutgers–Camden, we have that atmosphere and can have that personal interaction with undergraduate students. That could be a factor in attracting more women to STEM programs.”

A graduate of Reed College, where she earned her bachelor’s degree, and the University of California at Santa Barbara, where she earned her doctoral degree, Brannigan says local or visiting female scientists that she met and spent time with served as her strongest female role models.

“Those interactions were much more influential to me than the famous or well-known female scientists in history,” Brannigan says.

When asked whether she views herself as a role model for female students, she says, “It’s funny to think of myself in that way, but I hope I’m making that kind of impact. As a faculty member, you’re serving as a role model for everybody.”

For more on Brannigan’s research at Rutgers–Camden visit branniganlab.wordpress.com.

Posted in: Research Highlights

Comments are closed.