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Calvin Gets $190,000 NIH Grant
February 25, 2005

A grant of almost $190,000 to Calvin College professor and researcher Kumar Sinniah will both assist scientific research efforts on a global level and boost the career aspirations of budding student scientists at the college.

Sinniah, a professor of chemistry, received the grant from the National Institutes of Health for a project entitled "Biophysical Analysis of Enzyme Inhibitor Interactions."

"In layman's terms," says Sinniah, "the project is a three-year examination of an enzyme called carbonic anhydrase. This enzyme is a good thing in our bodies - it helps us breathe - but it also can be a bad thing. When it is overactive it can cause glaucoma."

Sinniah says the upcoming Calvin study is not likely to yield anything so earth-shattering as a cure for glaucoma. But it will make a difference.

"What we will do at Calvin," he says, "is contribute to understanding enzyme-inhibitor interactions at the molecular level. This understanding is fundamental to successful drug design. So, what we will do may someday become part of a new screening method for development of a glaucoma drug. Or it might not. But we will be a link in a scientific chain."

Sinniah notes that schools like Calvin often are not part of that chain.

Indeed this recent NIH grant has him paired up with colleagues at the University of Cambridge in England (where he spent his 2001-2002 sabbatical doing research). Sinniah notes that Cambridge is considered probably the top scientific university in Europe, and when his Cambridge colleagues would hear that his work at Calvinincluded significant contributions from undergraduate assistants, they'd be floored.

"Generally the sorts of things our students do at Calvin are typically reserved for major research universities," says Sinniah. "I usually get surprised reactions when people realize I'm being assisted by undergrads."

Sinniah says a trio of factors makes it possible at Calvin.

First, good colleagues. The recent grant from the NIH includes fellow Calvin professor of chemistry Ron Blankespoor as one of the key personnel on the project. In the past Sinniah has worked with, and published papers with, a variety of department colleagues as well as colleagues from other departments.

When Calvin professor Kumar Sinniah taught an interim class at Calvin recently, he spent a lot of time with his students teaching them how to use the school's scanning probe microscope. he expected that his students would be excited about using the instrument (they were) and that they would use it well (they did). What he didn't was that the class would end up gaining a cover story in the Journal of Chemical Education on experiments that can be done with the microscope at the undergraduate level. Sinniah says the cover was a coup for Calvin and its undergraduate chemistry program.

Second, Calvin undergrads who are eager to learn, love the sciences, and are curious and driven. For instance, Calvin sophomore Mark Vander Wal is listed in the grant proposal as one of the key personnel, along with Sinniah, Blankespoor and two Cambridge professors. VanderWal began to work with Sinniah already as a freshman, after he took one of Sinniah's introductory chemistry classes and demonstrated the traits Sinniah looks for in a student assistant.

Interestingly Sinniah says high school grade point average means very little in the equation.

"I've had students who were top students in high school," he says, "like Mark and they were great. They jumped right in. But I've had students who were maybe solid B students in high school and they were great too. What they've all had in common was the desire and the drive."

The third factor at Calvin is equipment.

Sinniah's work in Cambridge was possible because when he applied for the sabbatical his Cambridge colleagues knew of his research through papers he had published, conferences he had attended and more.

Already in 1992 Sinniah, on a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Maryland, had begun using a scientific technique called atomic force microscopy to study intermolecular forces of model organic surfaces. That technique - via which Sinniah can measure extremely weak interactions between molecules, interactions measuring as little as one billionth of a Newton - was developed in the 1980s and eventually won its inventors a Nobel Prize.

When he came to Calvin in 1995 he began working to get a scanning probe microscope for the college, so that he could continue to refine and advance his research using the technique. Soon after he arrived that instrument became a reality, thanks to a $110,000 National Science Foundation grant.

Getting that instrument, a rarity for an undergraduate college such as Calvin, was huge says Sinniah, both for his work then and for what it now allows him and his student assistants to do.

"For the people at Cambridge it didn't matter what university I was from," he says. "The questions were What can you bring to the table and How can it push all of us forward. I could bring my research and my experiences at Calvin, research and experiences that were made possible by the equipment, my colleagues here and our students."