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Professor Sara Olson Receives $800,000 National Science Foundation CAREER Grant to Study Embryo Development

Sara Olson, Biology, Professor, NSF, Career, Grant

Pomona College Biology Professor Sara Olson has been awarded a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to explore the process of embryo development in roundworms. The five-year award of $827,962 will fund her study, as well as research opportunities for Pomona College biology and molecular biology students and rising high school seniors in the Pomona College Academy for Youth Success (PAYS) program. 

Olson’s research focuses on the use of the nematode worm C. elegans, a roundwormas a model organism to study how protective barriers form around embryos by using fluorescence microscopy, biochemistry, molecular biology and genetic approaches. Findings from this study could shed light on the early embryonic development in other species, including mammals.

“The idea of building a protective barrier around an embryo is common throughout the animal kingdom,” says Olson. “From worms to flies to fish to mammals, all of these animals build protective barriers around their embryos. We study how that barrier forms over the egg during early development. Before fertilization, it has to be porous so the egg is accessible to the sperm, but after fertilization it has to get remodeled and be closed off for protection.”

Another goal is to identify new drug targets to fight parasitic roundworm infection in humans, plants and animals. “These parasitic worms affect people in developing countries in Africa, Central and South America and Southeast Asia,” says Olson. “Parasitic nematode infections are a major burden that cause loss in agriculture, sickness in humans and loss of productivity. If we can figure out how the worm’s eggshell is built, we can also figure out how to destroy it in the parasitic worms.”

Olson’s interest in reproductive development dates back to her senior year in high school when she was part of a summer program at the University of Minnesota, Morris. The two-week program in biology sparked her specific interest in embryonic development. Bringing things full circle, Olson will have local high school seniors from the PAYS program as part of her research team. 

“When PAYS was looking for professors who had research opportunities for rising high school seniors, I jumped on board right away,” says Olson. “This NSF grant has an educational outreach component that fits nicely into the design of the study.” 

The NSF award will also fund student stipends for Pomona research assistants, and it will create a mentorship pipeline for students historically underrepresented in science to support their paths in STEM fields.

The NSF's Faculty Early Career Development program supports junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations. Olson is the fourth Pomona faculty member selected to receive this award. Previous recipients include Chemistry Professor Jane Liu, Computer Science Professor Tzu-Yi Chen and Physics Professor Janice Hudgings – while she was at Mt. Holyoke College. 

Located in Claremont, California, Pomona College is widely regarded as one of the nation's premier liberal arts colleges. Established in 1887, Pomona is known for small classes, a challenging curriculum, close relationships between students and faculty and a range of student research and leadership opportunities.