Cummer, Three Others, Win Presidential Award

Steven Cummer, an assistant professor of electrical and computer
engineering at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering, was one of four Duke
faculty members who visited the White House July 12 to be honored for
their 2001 Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers
(PECASE), a special recognition for young federally-funded investigators.
Begun by President Clinton, the PECASE program provides additional
recognition for a select group of researchers whose projects are deemed
of greatest benefit to their funding agencies' missions.

Cummer, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering
at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering, will receive his PECASE in
recognition of his ionosphere study proposal that received $414,000 in
support from the National Science Foundation.

At an altitude between about 60 and 180 kilometers, or about 40 to 100
miles, the ionosphere is the region where air molecules become
electrically charged. It also harbors the strangest manifestations of lower
atmospheric weather: "sprites" and other ghostly, glowing phenomena
that are linked to lightning discharges.

Cummer uses a radio receiver and antenna in Duke Forest to detect and
analyze long-distance lightning discharges and associated sprites at
extremely low radio frequencies that are "strongly reflected by the lower
ionosphere," he said. Such detection ability makes lightning a natural
probe into one of the least understood regions of the upper atmosphere,
he added.

The lower ionosphere is a region too low to be studied by orbiting
satellites, but too high for weather balloons, he said. The military has built
gigantic low frequency radio transmitters and antennae for
communications purposes that can bounce these waves off the
ionosphere. But for scientific studies, scientists have mostly used rocket
probes that are very localized in space and time, he said.

"But lightning is perfect because it radiates strongly at exactly the right
frequencies," said Cummer. "So during a period when there are 10
different storms over the U.S. at one time, which is pretty common during
the summer in particular, we can probe the ionosphere along every single
one of those paths between the source and the receiver to answer
important questions about the variability of the upper atmosphere."

Michael Fitzgerald, an assistant professor of chemistry, will receive a
PECASE for developing and applying a quicker and more sensitive
method for measuring the thermodynamic stability of proteins in their
"folded" forms.

Proteins fold within their natural watery environments from stringlike
molecules into complex three-dimensional shapes that enable them to
do their jobs as biological catalysts and structural molecules. "They're
constantly folding and unfolding, but the large majority of proteins need to
be in their folded state to perform their biological function," Fitzgerald said.

"Stability measurements are a very important research tool when you're
trying to understand how proteins fold," he added. And the traditional
measurement methods involve time-consuming optical detection
techniques that require large amounts of highly purified protein.

Fitzgerald's approach, funded by $530,000 from the National Science
Foundation, uses a technique called mass spectrometry to accurately
record the molecular weight of proteins under specific conditions that
ultimately permit their stability to be measured.

With the new method, "we should be able to make measurements in
minutes compared to hours," he said. "You only have to have very small
quantities of protein. And it doesn't have to be highly purified." The
analytical technique was developed in collaboration with the laboratory of
Terry Oas, an associate professor of biochemistry

John Klingensmith, an assistant professor of cell biology, was cited for
his basic research in developmental biology that is contributing to the
understanding of birth defects, primarily those involving the head and
face. His work could lead to gene testing and therapy to prevent birth
defects or possibly to new treatments for birth defects.

A developmental geneticist who specializes in the emergence of
craniofacial and neural tube defects during gestation, his research in
mice has led to the identification of two genes, called Chordin and
Noggin, that play critical role in that emergence.

The award stems from a $1.7 million National Institutes of Health grant
focusing on those two genes, which are known to regulate Bone
Morphogenic Proteins (BMPs). BMPs are a family of protein signals that
have potent effects on craniofacial development. BMP2 and BMP4 are
thought to be particularly important in the growth of the brain, skull,
pituitary gland, teeth and face. Scientists had not previously made the
connection between BMP regulation and neural tube defects.

"Our primary goal is to understand the mechanisms of human birth
defects," he said. "In our work on BMP signaling, I think we've made an
important contribution toward explaining the mechanism of how birth
defects of the head and the face occur.

"Very little is known about the molecular and genetic mechanisms that
underlie these birth defects, or for that matter, normal craniofacial
development. Much of our research is designed to reveal the key steps in
head formation, and to elucidate the molecular basis of craniofacial birth
defects."

James Tulsky, M.D., a general internist at the Durham Veterans Affairs
(VA) Medical Center with a joint appointment as associate professor of
medicine at the Duke University Medical Center, was nominated for a
PECASE by the Department of Veteran Affairs for his research that
explores the quality of life at the end of life.

The research, which was funded by two grants from the VA totaling
$550,000, is designed to define the attributes of a "good" death -- one that
eases the transition for the patient -- and to create a method to measure
the quality of life for dying patients.

At the Durham VA Medical Center, he directs the Program on the Medical
Encounter and Palliative Care. At the Duke Medical Center, he is a
physician in ambulatory care and associate director of the Duke Institute
on Care at the End of Life.

Tulsky and colleagues identified six possible interventions designed to
improve its quality of life at the end of life -- pain and symptom
management, clear decision making, preparation for death, completion,
contributing to others and affirmation of the whole person.

His research has shown there is no one definition of "a good death" and
that wide disagreement exists about the importance of such issues as
dying at home and the use of life-sustaining treatments, Tulsky said.