The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded two University of Richmond biology professors, Malcolm Hill and April Hill, a three-year grant for a collaborative research project titled, “Evaluating the Molecular Genetic Pathways Responsible for Stable Host:Symbiont Interactions in Sponge:Algal Associations.”  

The $310,143 grant will support research on coral reef and freshwater sponges and their algal partners to determine the molecular, genetic, cellular and physiological interactions that occur between the two. These types of symbiotic partnerships are responsible for the health of many ecosystems.

Malcolm and April Hill hope to learn more about common pathways that intracellular organisms use to invade host cells.

“With this research we want to know how does the algal cell living inside an animal cell avoid being digested by the host,” said April Hill. “Answering this question has ramifications that go beyond understanding the mutualisms that support coral reef health,” said April Hill.

“This research may shed light on genetic and cellular features common to any organism that resides inside the cell of another organism,” said Malcolm Hill.

For example the disease-causing parasite that causes malaria may employ similar strategies to avoid detection, as do the algae used in these studies. “There may be only a handful of ways to invade a host cell, and we are looking for evidence of convergent evolution in these sponges,” said April Hill.

“April and I are honored to have the support of the National Science Foundation to do this work, and we look forward to working with talented students at the University of Richmond to accomplish our goals,” added Malcolm Hill. Four undergraduate students each summer will have the opportunity to participate in field and laboratory research over the next three years.

“April and I are both passionate about the advancement of undergraduate science education, and being able to offer hands-on research experience is an integral part of that effort,” said Malcolm Hill.

“It’s also a wonderful way to help prepare our students for graduate school and their careers,” he added.

Both Malcolm and April Hill have taught at UR for more than a decade. Malcolm received his bachelor’s degree at Colby College, and April completed her undergraduate degree at University of North Texas. Both completed their Ph.D. work at the University of Houston.

April Hill has been awarded a number of grants for research and teaching, and was recently the recipient of the 2016 Outstanding Faculty Award by the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia in recognition of superior accomplishments in teaching, research and public service. She is director of UR’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant-funded science education program and a nationally recognized leader in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.

Malcolm Hill is dedicated to undergraduate education, and looks for ways to engage his research in the service of teaching. He has received several grants to support his scholarly and pedagogical goals, the most recent being an NSF-RAPID grant to assess the urgent effects of climate change on sponges in coral reefs off the Florida coast.

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The project will be undertaken with Jeremy Weisz, a colleague and associate professor at Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore., who was awarded a companion grant of $128,416. Two undergraduate students per summer at that institution will also participate in this research.

Professor of Biology
Chair, Department of Biology
Gene Regulation and Gene Networks
Evolutionary and Developmental Biology
Genomics and Bioinformatics
Symbiosis
Professor of Biology
Clarence E. Denoon Professor of Science
Evolutionary ecology
Symbiosis
Coral reef ecology