Biophysics researcher wins $2.5 million NIH award

Professor of Physics Huan-Xiang Zhou
Professor of Physics Huan-Xiang Zhou

A Florida State University researcher is among the first batch of scientists to be awarded a new type of National Institutes of Health grant that will provide full support for their research programs over the next five years.

Professor of Physics Huan-Xiang Zhou will receive $2.5 million as part of the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) from the NIH. The MIRA grants have been designed to give researchers total flexibility in how their labs move forward in investigating critical scientific questions.

“Having the freedom to pursue projects as science progresses is really the best way to do science,” Zhou said. “We can improvise as our own research progresses and also as the field evolves.”

Most grants given by federal funding agencies are tied to an extremely specific mandate or set of experiments. However, researchers often find in the course of their work that they need to change their approach based on the results they achieve or new information published by other scientists. But, the terms of their grants do not always allow them to do so.

“Our field is always evolving, so this gives us more flexibility and freedom to stay ahead of the curve,” he said.

The NIH award will be given over five years and provide support for multiple students and postdoctoral fellows in Zhou’s laboratory.

The grant allows Zhou to broadly explore questions about the intersection of physics and biology in various cellular processes. In particular, he is looking at regulatory processes of the cell both when it is healthy and facing disease.

One part of his research will examine how molecules in the cell exhibit emergent behaviors. For example, many molecules experience a phase separation that is key to cellular functions, but is poorly understood by scientists.

“Many neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are the result of that separation going wrong in which concentrated proteins aggregate and form solid fibrils,” said Piotr Fajer, director of the Florida State University Institute for Molecular Biophysics. “The basic physics underlying these phase transitions is missing and research by Professor Zhou and his group will provide invaluable knowledge.”

Zhou and his students also will research how molecules bind to critical enzymes and regulate their functions. Understanding that process could greatly move the drug development field forward.