Amy Andreotti and Kristen Johansen Receive Roy J. Carver Awards

Amy Andreotti (left) and Kristen Johansen (right) received Roy J. Carver awards that will support their research in the Roy J. Carver Department of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology.

Two faculty members in the Roy J. Carver Department of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology received awards created at Iowa State University with support from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust.

Amy Andreotti was renewed as the Roy J. Carver Chair in Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology. Kristen Johansen, recently named department chair, was named a Roy J. Carver Professor in Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology. Both faculty awards were established to support research by outstanding scholars in the area of biomolecular structure and function.

“We’re so grateful for the visionary generosity of the Carver Trust,” Andreotti said. “It has greatly increased the vibrancy of the department.”

The awards provide funding that will support Andreotti’s and Johansen’s research into high-risk, high-reward areas, work that wouldn’t be possible without the generous support of the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust. The Carver Trust of Muscatine, Iowa, is the department’s largest donor. It has provided more than $14 million for faculty research, instrumentation, and student programs.

Andreotti will use the funds for a research project attempting to identify small molecules that can switch on and off immune system cells. In a healthy state we rely on our immune system to turn on and fight viral and bacterial infections, then turn off to avoid attacking our own healthy cells. However, sometimes this process goes wrong, causing autoimmune disorders when the immune system is overactive, and immunodeficiencies when it is underactive. Andreotti’s research could improve scientific understanding of what molecules contribute to the immune system being activated or deactivated, which could lead to better treatment when the process goes wrong.

“It’s high-risk because it’s a little bit like a fishing expedition where you hope you’ll catch something, but you really don’t know when you set out in the morning,” Andreotti said. “But it’s also high-gain because we would be opening up a new therapeutic approach if we’re successful in finding molecules that have some desired activity.”

Johansen will use the funds to support her research into understanding proteins in the cell that affect chromosome organization and gene expression. Her research sheds light on the complexities of the architecture and regulation of genetic information within the cell. This understanding contributes to knowledge in a range of areas from healthy cell metabolism to causes of diseases such as cancer and possible treatments.

“A lot of cancers are due to genes not being expressed properly, but scientists have been surprised to find out the genes are not mutated,” Johansen said. “We now know the problem is because the chromatin packaging was disrupted. New treatments are trying to prevent this disruption and information on the chromatin structure will be helpful for that.”

Andreotti and Johansen also expressed excitement for how the funds will further enable their work with students.

“Watching our students become real scientists — they usually start in our Ph.D. program having just finished their undergraduate degree and often have had little experience working in a research laboratory,” Andreotti said. “But they’re passionate. They have energy. They have that fire in the belly to learn and become a scientist, and I get a lot of satisfaction out of watching that process.”