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Professor Melinda Duncan has received major appointments to the research administration at the University of Delaware.
professor of biological sciences at the University of Delaware, has been
appointed associate vice president for research at UD and director of
the Delaware IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE).
Funded by the National Institutes of Health and the state of
Delaware, Delaware INBRE is a collaboration of academic, research and
health care institutions working to boost the state’s biomedical
research capacity. The network includes UD, Delaware State University,
ChristianaCare, Delaware Technical Community College, Nemours Children’s
Health and the Wilmington VA Medical Center.
“Dr. Duncan has a reputation for excellence across research, graduate
education and diversity, equity and inclusion. I look forward to our
work on strategic projects that support Delaware’s research growth and
its positive impact on Delawareans,” said Charlie Riordan, vice
president for research, scholarship and innovation. “I also thank Steven
Stanhope, professor of kinesiology and applied physiology, for the
tremendous contributions he made in these roles over the past eight
years. Melinda brings great expertise and energy to continue the
Duncan, who grew up in nearby Cecil County, Maryland, has been
involved in research since she was an undergraduate student. But her
early years in college were not easy, and she is committed to removing
whatever hurdles she can for others.
“I was the first in my family to go to college, and I really didn’t
know what was expected—I didn’t know how to play the game,” she said. “I
really struggled at first.”
Fortunately, one of Duncan’s professors was impressed by her
laboratory work and encouraged her to apply for an undergraduate
research internship. The experience turned her around academically. She
would end up contributing to new discoveries, co-authoring an impressive
four research publications as an undergraduate. She went on to excel in
her studies and then kept on going, pursuing her Ph.D. and becoming a
Now, as director of the Delaware INBRE program, she will lead a major
initiative to expand the state’s biomedical workforce and
infrastructure, with the ultimate goal to improve the health of
Delawareans. And she and her collaborators want any student interested
in biomedical research—a high-paying field—to have the opportunity to
pursue it as a career.
Biomedical research, as Duncan explains, encompasses a broad spectrum
of work, from exploring the basic mechanisms of how life works, such as
the binding of COVID-19’s spike protein to the ACE2 protein that allows
the virus to infect cells, to orchestrating large, community health
initiatives focusing on a specific disease such as cancer.
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In this pre-pandemic photo, Melinda Duncan (seated) is shown with team members involved in cataract research.
The associated professions are many, from biotechnologists working to develop biopharmaceutical drugs,
to microbiologists and epidemiologists, data scientists, laboratory
managers and makers of artificial limbs and organs, to mention only a
Delaware is just the place for establishing such a career, according to Life Sciences in Delaware, a
2021 report issued by the Delaware Prosperity Partnership and the
Delaware Bioscience Association. Bioscience is a key economic driver in
Delaware—generating $2 billion in gross domestic product (GDP) annually,
with 11,000 people employed across various sectors, from medical
R&D to agricultural and industrial biosciences — and the state is
poised for much more growth, the report said.
Delaware INBRE, an initiative funded by the NIH via its Institutional
Development Award (IDeA) program and the state of Delaware, has an
important role in maintaining that momentum, according to Duncan. The
network collaborates to fund shared research facilities, to seed
promising ideas proposed by early career researchers, and to provide
undergraduate students with internships and other opportunities to do
Since Delaware INBRE launched in 2001, the program has provided
research experiences for 869 undergraduate students, with more than a
third of those students continuing on to pursue graduate degrees. Close
to a third of the scholars are now employed in science or health-related
fields in Delaware.
The network’s impact on early career researchers also has been
considerable, leading to dozens of proposals submitted to funding
competitions at the National Institutes of Health and other federal
agencies over the years, resulting in 393 research grants awarded,
Duncan’s own research focuses on the eye,
specifically how the ocular lens responds to injury, and how this can
limit the outcomes of cataract surgery. Her work has continuously been
funded by NIH since 1998, and she credits her successful start to the
seed funding she received via the very first NIH IDeA grant ever made to
a Delaware institution (Professor Daniel Simmons of the Department of
Biological Sciences, now retired, as principal investigator) which
funded the facilities, equipment and people needed to expand UD’s
research in molecular and structural biology in the late 1990s.
This award, which also made initial investments in infrastructure,
such as high-end microscopes and the experts needed to run them, have
led to today’s world-class Bio-Imaging Center,
a core research facility at UD that assists bioscience researchers in
Delaware and far beyond with their studies. And that’s just one example
at UD alone.
“We couldn’t have gotten where we are today without that initial support from the NIH,” Duncan said.
Duncan sees INBRE as a statewide force for getting all the research
and education units talking together to help build a science ecosystem
that is poised to solve today’s most vexing problems, while
simultaneously expanding opportunity for all.
“The thing I have always enjoyed the most is helping other people be
successful,” said Duncan, who directed the graduate program in the
Department of Biological Sciences for 11 years. “And that’s really what
Delaware INBRE is — seeing if you can fix barriers to success,
especially for people who are the first generation in their family to go
to college, who are from an underrepresented group or under serious
financial constraints. It’s a really great job to be able to remove
barriers for people with great ideas.”
Article by Tracey Bryant; photos by Ashley Barnas and Evan Krape
Published Feb. 1, 2022