It’s not every day that you’re congratulated in a full-page ad in The New York Times.
That’s a special recognition University of Delaware professor Catherine
Leimkuhler Grimes received on Tuesday, Feb. 21, when she and other
selected scientists were announced as Sloan Research Fellowship winners.
The prestigious two-year, $60,000 fellowship is awarded annually to
126 early-career scholars from the U.S. and Canada whose accomplishments
mark them as the next generation of scientific leaders.
“The Sloan Research Fellows are the rising stars of the academic
community,” said Paul L. Joskow, president of the Alfred P. Sloan
Foundation. “Through their achievements and ambition, these young
scholars are transforming their fields and opening up entirely new
research horizons. We are proud to support them at this crucial stage of
Grimes, assistant professor in UD’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, will use her fellowship to investigate how chronic inflammatory diseases, such as asthma and Crohn’s disease, arise.
Her work focuses on organisms you can’t see and can’t live without —
bacteria. Each of us carts around about three pounds of bacteria, in our
stomachs and intestines, on our skin and lots of other places. Most are
beneficial, helping with myriad functions, from digesting lunch to
healing a bruise. Some are harmful, causing infections and disease.
Bacteria naturally shed tiny fragments of their cell wall as they
grow, like lint from a jacket. If these fragments come from harmful
bacteria, your immune system responds accordingly by waging war on the
Sometimes, however, a case of mistaken identity occurs — the cell
wall fragments may have been sloughed by beneficial bacteria, but the
immune system misreads them and winds up attacking healthy tissue. That
scenario has been implicated in Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis,
asthma and cancer.
Grimes hypothesizes that these diseases erupt from a discrete set of
bacterial cell wall fragments and that the body has mechanisms to sense
such molecules. To test this hypothesis, she and her laboratory group
are enlisting a full-court press of scientific techniques, from
synthetic organic chemistry, to molecular biology, immunology,
biochemistry and microbiology.
“I feel extremely lucky to have such a diverse group of research
students who are just as dedicated to these projects as I am,” Grimes
said. “Together we are unveiling how our immune systems keep track of
both the good and bad bacteria.”
As a Sloan Research Fellow, Grimes is in prestigious company. In her
own department at UD, she notes that her colleagues Joel Rosenthal, Doug
Taber, Thomas Beebe and Klaus Theopold — all past winners of the
fellowship — provide excellent examples of dynamic research programs.
In the wider scientific community, past awardees include such
towering figures as physicist Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann and
game theorist John Nash. Forty-three former fellows have received a
Nobel Prize in their respective field, 16 have won the Fields Medal in
mathematics, 69 have received the National Medal of Science, and 16 have
won the John Bates Clark Medal in economics, including every winner
Grimes was named a Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences by The Pew Charitable Trusts in 2014, won the Cottrell Scholar Award in 2015 and received the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development Award in 2016.
She graduated summa cum laude from Villanova University, earned her
master’s degree in chemistry from Princeton University and her doctorate
in chemistry from Harvard. She joined the UD faculty in 2011.
Established in 1934 by Alfred Pritchard Sloan Jr., then-president and
chief executive officer of the General Motors Corp., the Sloan
Foundation makes grants in support of original research and education in
science, technology, engineering, mathematics and economics. The
foundation is based in New York City.
Article by Tracey Bryant; photo by Evan Krape