NSF CAREER Award Contributes to Circadian Rhythm and Metabolism Research, Education by UK Biology Professor

By Richard LeComte 

LEXINGTON, Ky. –Julie Pendergast, assistant professor of biology in the University of Kentucky’s College of Arts & Sciences, has received a five-year CAREER award for junior faculty researchers from the National Science Foundation. The award is for $875,000. Pendergast’s project, “Deciphering the neural network orchestrating sex differences in metabolic circadian rhythms,” will help scientists gauge how daily patterns affect obesity. 

CAREER awards are the NSF’s most prestigious awards for early career faculty “who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.” The grants contain both a research and an educational component to supplement the recipients’ teaching duties. 

“The circadian system controls 24-hour rhythms of behavior and physiology, such as when we eat, sleep, and metabolize sugars and fats,” Pendergast said. “From flies to humans, disrupting circadian rhythms exacerbates metabolic risk. Thus, studying the timing of metabolic processes is critical for developing approaches to regulate energy balance and metabolic risk. 

“The neural pathway in the brain that regulates the circadian eating rhythm, or when we eat, is not known. To discover this neural pathway, the project studies sex differences in eating rhythms during a nutritional high-fat diet challenge. Estrogen in female, but not in male, mice regulates eating behavior circadian rhythms during a nutritional challenge. This study manipulates estrogen signaling in the brain to reveal the neural circuitry controlling the eating rhythm in mice.”  

The CAREER grant lets Pendergast provide paid research fellowships to high school, undergraduate and graduate students to work on the project. Pendergast also plans to develop undergraduate research courses for both STEM and non-STEM students to study sex differences in human circadian rhythms to go along with studies in mice.  

“The educational projects provide independent research experiences for trainees as well as research experiences for groups of undergraduates through these new courses,” she said. “These courses will allow more undergraduate students to participate in research, which builds on what they learn in their lecture courses and also helps to retain them long-term in science careers.” 

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Science Foundation under Award Number 2045267. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. 

 

 

 

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