UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

Enhancing discovery

UND’s new postdoctoral program adds capacity in the lab in support of strategic research goals

Colin Combs and Harpreet Kaur
Colin Combs (left), Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Sciences, and his postdoc mentee, Harpreet Kaur have two lines of research underway, and both target the neurodegenerative diseases Alzheimer’s and dementia. The two researchers are part of a new UND program designed to increase research capacity and help faculty obtain and manage more grants. Photo by Jackie Lorentz.

It’s called the snowball effect. And UND’s Postdoctoral Program is starting to roll.  The program is designed to increase research capacity and help faculty obtain and manage more grants. As it grows, the program will be an important component in helping the University increase discovery (goal 4 of UND’s strategic plan) and achieve Carnegie R1 status.

Initiated last year by Grant McGimpsey, Vice President for Research & Economic Development, the first round of the program co-funded 10 postdoctoral positions in response to proposals submitted by faculty researchers at UND. Each postdoctoral position was funded for two years, with support coming from the Office of Research and Economic Development and the college home of the faculty awardees.  A call for proposals for the second round of the program was issued last month and up to 10 awards will be made in November.

The long term plan, said McGimpsey, is to have a sustainable program with a steady population of 20 internally funded postdoctoral positions, many of which have a focus on one or more of UND’s Grand Challenges.

Snowball effect

“The faculty – postdoctoral relationship is a partnership,” McGimpsey said. “Postdocs are highly trained and highly productive. They conduct research and advise student research projects and they write manuscripts and proposals. Basically, they provide their faculty advisors more time to pursue external funding and manage more grants and hire more postdoctoral students. It’s a positive feedback loop where our initial investment can drive significant growth.”

In addition to more research funding, McGimpsey’s goal is to create a postdoctoral culture at UND, another strong indicator of Carnegie R1 status (Doctoral University-Highest Research Activity).

“A healthy research enterprise with a large postdoctoral population and a strong postdoctoral culture makes it easier to obtain more external funding and recruit more postdocs, creating a powerful snowball effect,” McGimpsey said. “If we have a strong postdoctoral culture at UND, it will be easier to recruit top faculty and students.”

And it’s working.

Colin Combs and Harpreet Kaur
Combs (left) is highly regarded for his work on neurodegenerative diseases and neuroimmune interactions during aging. He benefits from the assistance of postdoc researchers such as Kaur (right), and Kaur gains the opportunity work alongside Combs, whose research is supported by the highest-level grants from the National Institutes of Health and by private foundations such as the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. Photo by Jackie Lorentz.

Neurodegenerative research

Colin Combs, Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor and chair of biomedical sciences as the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, was able to use the program to recruit Harpreet Kaur to work with him on his nationally known Alzheimer’s and dementia research.

“The Postdoctoral Program is a big boost,” said Combs. “We’ve already gotten another grant from this. The program is doing what it’s intended to do. It’s a good program, and we’re very grateful for it. Harpreet wouldn’t be here without that funding, and she’s now received a three-year fellowship from the Alzheimer’s Association.”

Combs said that the outside grant means they won’t need the second year of funding from the program. “This helps us successfully compete for funding and bring in new people,” said Combs.

“I am so impressed with the work of Professor Combs and Dr. Kaur,” McGimpsey said, “and I am excited that the post doctoral program has had a hand in their success to date.  Dr. Combs and all the other faculty awardees should know that should their postdoc successfully obtain funding for their own support, the remainder of the award can be used to support a new postdoc.”

It’s not just about the funding. It’s about the work.

Combs is noted for his work on neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and on neuroimmune interactions during aging. His research is supported by the highest-level grants from the National Institutes of Health and by private foundations such as the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s research.

“Alzheimer’s is a big problem in the United States and North Dakota,” said Combs. “We’d like to be able to provide something that improves the quality of life for people with Alzheimer’s, or delay progression of the disease.”

Two strategies

Combs and his postdocs are pursuing two strategies: classic drug discovery and therapeutic development.

“We identify something that’s wrong and find a drug to target that,” said Combs. The second strategy is to test existing therapies that may affect progression of the disease.

“Right now we’re researching a medical food – a probiotic – that so far has few side effects on patients,” Combs said. “It looks very promising and is hopefully quicker than the long-term strategy, which can take years.”

Kaur, who earned her Ph.D. from Panjab University in India, is interested in neuroinflammation.

“It plays a huge role in any disorder, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s,” Kaur said. “These are some of the most common disorders, and they affect so many people. We know there are several factors responsible, but there is no cure. Our objective is to find something to alter the progression. Can diet slow the disease? Are there biomarkers we can detect early to find a cure?”

Kaur, who spends about 85 percent of her time in the lab, has received a grant from the Alzheimer’s Foundation that will support her work for an additional three years at UND.

“I consider myself lucky to work for Dr. Combs,” she said. “I want to thank my mentor and UND. It’s a great opportunity to work under his guidance, and I’m grateful for the Postdoc Program. It’s an opportunity to work and collaborate in great facilities.”

“Our plan is to justify the investment in us,” said Combs. “Research is an opportunity and a responsibility. We receive federal funding and are paid by the state. Faculty who received funding are pushing hard, and know this is a huge investment. We want to make sure it pays off.”