Willa Dean Lowery Grants to Support Research in the Natural Sciences

The Willa Dean Lowery Fund supports faculty research in the natural sciences to advance the teacher-scholar role by encouraging proposals for innovation in scientific research. The fund is made possible through the generosity of the late Stetson patron Dr. Willa Dean Lowery '48. Through her support of the natural sciences, Stetson University has bestowed Willa Dean Lowery Grants for meritorious scientific research projects, several of which have garnered national recognition.

Call for Proposals

Proposals are invited for natural science projects that show promise and contribute to the faculty member's development as a teacher-scholar. Funding is based on the quality of the proposal and the potential contribution to the tenured/tenure-track faculty member's teacher-scholar agenda, to the culture of research, we wish to establish for undergraduates, and to the College of Arts and Science's wider recognition for excellence in science. Faculty may propose new projects, work that builds on or anticipates a sabbatical project, strengthen summer grant research, and more. Faculty on sabbatical may apply.


Willa Dean Lowery Grant Award Recipients




Holley Lynch, Associate Professor of Physics

Establishing Vanessa Cardui as a System for Embryo Research

Painted lady butterflies, Vanessa Cardui, are ideal for research with undergraduate students because butterflies are invertebrates with a relatively fast life cycle that lay eggs every day for several weeks at a time. Currently, Dr. Lynn Kee’s lab observations of the effect of genetic changes were all done at the caterpillar stage and beyond. Last year, we successfully collected the first images of embryo development in this species. This project will build on that success by making V. Cardui embryos a flexible system for student and faculty researchers by establishing temperature-based staging charts and developing a protocol to access tissues and cells in a living embryo. Achieving the first aim will allow researchers to schedule experiments to take advantage of peak egg-laying times regardless of the stage of interest. Completing the second aim will allow the use of biophysical techniques from imaging to mechanical manipulation on these embryos. This project has the potential to have a huge impact on the field by taking live images of cell movements at the embryo stage for any butterfly species.


Roslyn Crowder, Associate Professor of Biology

Examining hypoxia-induced caspase-8 post-translational modifications in hypoxic cancer cells

Caspase-8 is a mediator of regulated cell death and apoptosis. Caspase-8 mediated cell death is used clinically to target and eliminate pathogenic cells in diseases including cancer, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Loss of caspase-8 activity has been identified as a cell death resistance mechanism, highlighting the requirement of complete caspase-8 activation for cell death progression. Hypoxia is a term that refers to conditions with low oxygen levels. Hypoxic regions in solid, malignant tumors have been found to be resistant to chemotherapy and radiation therapy, presenting therapeutic challenges. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy utilize initiation of cell death pathways involving caspase-8 activation to kill cancer cells. Caspase-8 protein receives several post-translational modifications (PTMs) that affect protein function including phosphorylation (adds phosphates), ubiquitination (adds ubiquitin) and sumoylation (adds SUMO). Cullin3 ligase and A20 deubiquitinase are associated with adding and removing ubiquitin to and from caspase-8, respectively. PIAS ligase and SUMO-specific protease SENP1 are associated with adding and removing SUMO to and from caspase-8, respectively. Hypoxia has been shown to alter protein phosphorylation. While changes to phosphorylated proteins under hypoxia have been studied, changes to ubiquitinated and sumoylated proteins, remain largely unexplored. Regulation of caspase-8 sumoylation and ubiquitination, under hypoxia, has not been investigated.


Kristine Dye, Assistant Professor of Biology

Elucidate the Mechanisms of Cellular Transformation and Tumorigenesis by MCPyVST Necessary for the Development of MCC

Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) is a rare but aggressive skin cancer with a mortality rate three times greater than melanoma. In 2008, it was discovered that MCC is caused by the integration of the Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCPyV) genome into the host genome, and subsequent constitutive expression of viral oncoproteins, such as the small tumor antigen (ST). Previous research of mine has shown that MCPyV ST binds to the cellular protein AMOT, a regulator of the cell cycle. The goal of this current project with senior research students is to elucidate the mechanisms by which MCPyV ST perturbs the functions of AMOT resulting in tumorigenesis. Such experiments will provide the MCC field with influential advancements necessary for the design of novel, efficacious, therapeutics to treat MCC. Of importance, the most influential healthcare workers have an appreciation and the ability to conceptualize basic research that contributes to our current understanding of disease and individualized, efficacious treatment options. Therefore, the engagement of senior research students in an authentic virology and cancer research project will provide these students with the comprehensive training, confidence, and experience that will undoubtedly influence their future careers in health care and progress my development as a teacher-scholar at Stetson University.

Holley Lynch, Assistant Professor of Physics

Tracking Cellular Motion During Early Embryo Development

The proper assembly of new tissues and organs throughout development depends on large-scale tissue motions. Current approaches to understanding the mechanics of these developmental processes in many species are limited to analysis of fixed samples or almost nonexistent. In this project, we will establish protocols for live cell imaging in Ambystoma mexicanum embryonic tissue explants and Vanessa Cardui butterfly embryos. These time-lapse image sequences will be used to determine the cellular coordination within developing tissues and to investigate the extent cellular behaviors are conserved across species. This will further my development as a teacher-scholar at Stetson University by enhancing my research program. In addition, protocols established in this project will be used to expose Biophysics (PHYS 251) students to fluorescent microscopy and its use in interdisciplinary research. The proposed image processing workstation will advance computationally intense tasks, like deconvolution from long-term and live imaging experiments using the inverted fluorescent microscope acquired from the National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation grant ($266,091, 2019), on which I am a principal investigator.


Jean Smith, Assistant Professor of Biology

Uncovering Novel Mutations in Cell Fusion Genes Using Error-Prone Polymerase Chain Reaction

Cell fusion is essential for the development of eukaryotic organisms. Sperm-egg fusion occurs during fertilization, muscle cells fuse to form muscle fibers, and placental cells fuse for proper implantation during pregnancy. Fusion has also recently been implicated in cancer development and progression. Unfortunately, relatively little is known about the molecular mechanisms and regulation of cell fusion. Studying this process in budding yeast allows for the identification of genes involved in fusion. Importantly, many genes and proteins are conserved from yeast to humans, which has allowed the identification of yeast fusion proteins that have subsequently been shown to be important in muscle fusion. Here, I propose a screen to uncover novel mutations in a known regulator of fusion in yeast. This project requires mutations to be made using a polymerase chain reaction, which requires a thermocycler. We do not have a thermocycler capable of the long reactions required to make these mutants. Not only is this equipment required for the current proposal, but it is also essential for most molecular biology research. Therefore, the acquisition of a thermocycler would have a great impact on my growth as a teacher-scholar and allow me to conduct exciting projects with senior research students as well as inquiry-based labs.

Past Award Recipients

Dr. Willa Dean Lowery, '48

April 16, 1947 - July 14, 2021

Reverend Dr. Willa Dean Lowery, MD, MDiv, MPH, MS, BS, earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry from Stetson University in 1948 and a Master of Science degree in bacteriology from the University of Florida in 1952. She worked as a bacteriologist with the Florida Department of Public Health in Jacksonville, FL then worked in Belem, Brazil for three years as a research bacteriologist for the US Government Operations Mission to Brazil. Dr. Lowery went on to earn a degree in medicine from the University of Miami in 1959 and served as a rotating intern at Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital. She continued her education at the University of Pittsburgh, where she received a Master's degree in public health in 1962.

From 1960 to 1965, Dr. Lowery served as a public health officer with the Department of Health in Jacksonville, FL. In 1965, she relocated to Pittsburgh where she was a resident in obstetrics and gynecology at Magee Women's Hospital. Soon after in 1968, she began teaching obstetrics-gynecology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. From 1969 to 1988, Dr. Lowery engaged in private practice and retired from practicing medicine in 1988. Several years later, in 1994, Dr. Lowery received a Master of Divinity from the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. In 2003, Stetson University honored Dr. Lowery with the Distinguished Alumni Award. A passionate scholar and champion of Stetson University, she established the Willa Dean Lowery Endowed Scholarship in 2004 for students majoring in the natural sciences and the Lowery Endowment for Faculty Research in the Natural Sciences in 2013.