People of SU / Research

Illuminating Genes

Written by Andrew Binion

February 27, 2023

Photo of professor Chris Whidbey

Chemistry Professor and alum Christopher Whidbey, PhD, recipient of the 2023 Cottrell Scholar Award, aims to draw students into real-world research.

Seattle University Assistant Professor of Chemistry Christopher Whidbey, PhD, was awarded a 2023 Cottrell Scholar Award, giving the 2010 SU alum $100,000 to try to shed light on the functions of unknown genes thousands at a time.

Whidbey will be including undergrads in the potentially groundbreaking experiment, but he will also build a course aimed at involving first- and second-year students in real biomedical research, promoting the voices and retention of underrepresented minority groups in STEM fields. 

It is the feeling of belonging and contributing actual research that helps retain students and make them feel welcome and integral to the mission of scientific research.

“It helps get them thinking and understanding that they really are scientists,” says Whidbey. “They are early-career scientists, but they are scientists doing research that matters and helps people.”

Obtaining genome sequences from different organisms from around the globe has been a major scientific breakthrough in the past 20 years, offering vast potential for solutions for a myriad of health-related challenges, ranging from improving infant mortality rates to breaking down microplastic pollution.

“But we don’t know what most of those genes are there for,” notes Whidbey.

One complication is figuring out what function the genes serve because testing them one at a time is a painstaking process that takes a lot of time and effort.

That’s where Whidbey comes in, one of 26 early career scholars in chemistry, physics and astronomy fields who were given the grant by the Research Corporation for Scientific Advancement.

Whidbey’s idea is to use already available technology to see if it can identify the functions of genes not one at a time, but thousands or tens of thousands all at once.

“It would be a much faster way of identifying gene products that could be useful for different applications,” he says.

The grant will help fund Whidbey’s research, paying for six students to work over the next three summers on the project. It also has an educational component. Whidbey will develop a course for first- or second-year students that integrates genome sequencing along with his own research into microbial communities related to maternal-child health. He is hopeful the course will be available as soon as the next academic year.

Whidbey says involving and retaining STEM students is personal.

“That’s important to me, as someone who is an underrepresented minority in science,” he says. 

He raises a recent study that found disparate outcomes in infant mortality rates among Black and Indigenous parents compared to white parents. 

“Having a way that students can take the science they are learning in the classroom and really help to address persistent public health problems is the main goal of the research project.”