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September 23, 2014

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Research sprouts from small seeds

The secrets of human aging may be found in the DNA of a honey bee.

That, at least, is one of the theories behind UNLV life science professor Michelle Elekonich's research. She's part of a five-member team studying the DNA chip of honey bees for clues into why the pollinators age so fast. That in turn may lead to ways to slow that aging down - techniques that could be applied to humans , too.

The project is one of several benefitting from $50,000 seed grants being distributed by university President David Ashley to promote campus research. In one of his first major acts as president, Ashley in February set aside $1.25 million cobbled together from salary savings, end-of-year money that needed to be spent and ongoing research initiatives to provide money for professors to go after competitive grants. Professors have responded so enthusiastically that Ashley is working on another pot of money come September.

UNLV has relied on federal earmarks, particularly from the Energy and Defense departments, as it has built its research reputation, and the internal grants were designed to help professors compete on their own, Ashley and other UNLV officials said.

"This is one of the ways that UNLV is investing in research to allow us to go to the next level," said Elekonich, who already has one National Science Foundation grant in conjunction with colleague Steve Roberts.

The grants allow professors to collect enough data in their area of research to prove their experiment will work and that the knowledge generated is worth additional funding from such agencies as the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health.

"It's just like in business, you have to have a little money to make money," Elekonich said.

About $400,000 went to collaborative research proposals like Elekonich and Roberts', $100,000 went to smaller research projects for individual professors and $750,000 went to one-shot equipment needs. Thirty-four grants were distributed in all.

The collaborative grants, worth up to $50,000, were designed to encourage research projects across disciplines and across universities , said Ron Smith, interim vice president of research and graduate studies. Many of the winning grants also offer graduate research opportunities. Elekonich and Robert's grant, for instance, covers two Ph.D. students and includes collaboration with a genome expert from North Carolina State.

The individual grants, up to $10,000 a piece, were designed to help professors with travel opportunities and other smaller-scale needs. The equipment grants were to help build UNLV's research capabilities in order to pursue new research queries.

"The better equipped the lab is , the more sophisticated questions we can ask and the better answers we can find the answers to," said kinesiology professor John Mercer, who received about $20,000 to purchase and operate a dual-force platform system that, like a souped-up bathroom scale, measures the force of a person's steps or a jump. The equipment is used to test the impact of running on joints and in research on how to help the elderly improve their balance.

Some of the major projects funded include:

The money is allowing UNLV researchers to start work and go after research grants they otherwise wouldn't be able to compete for, several grant winners said.

"You have to put money into it to making it happen," said Denby Brinson, a social work professor on the juvenile delinquent study.

The one downfall of the research awards has been limited funds, Smith and Ashley said.

Only about one-third of the applicants for the collaborative research grants could be funded before the money ran out, which showed both the effect of the funding and the need, said Robin Toles, director of research services.

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