Peter Christenson awarded Mistletoe Research Fellowship

Doctoral candidate Peter Christenson is a recipient of the 2021-2022 Mistletoe Research Fellowship. Founded by the Momental Foundation, the Mistletoe Research Fellowship (MRF) supports advanced doctoral candidates and postdoctoral fellows in their research while also providing them the opportunity to collaborate with startups that have a potential for social and humanitarian impact.

Christenson’s grant award will aid his research efforts in developing advanced detection methods for protein diseases in mammals. He is currently engaged in developing methods to detect chronic wasting disease (CWD) in cervids such as elk, moose, and deer. At present, CWD detection methods require tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment that cannot be used outside of a traditional lab setting, and tests take several days to complete. 

Christenson’s work is situated at the crossroads of engineering and biology. Working under the guidance of professors Sang-Hyun Oh from ECE and Peter Larsen of the Minnesota Center for Prion Research and Outreach (MNPRO), he is exploring cheaper, and more time efficient methods that use plasmonics in combination with surface functionalization chemistry for the detection of CWD. Plasmonics is a field where nanostructures are used to squeeze the energy of light down to very small spaces, where well confined, it can be a sensitive detector. Scientists can use techniques based in plasmonics to gain insights into the folding states of proteins. Christenson’s doctoral work is focused on making these techniques more robust, which could lead to widely applicable, rapid field tests for the detection of CWD and other protein-misfolding diseases.

Impact of Mistletoe fellowship on research

The MRF was founded with three goals in mind: support advanced doctoral students and early career professionals in their scientific research and professional development, support startup companies to promote technologies that will have widespread social and humanitarian impact, and build partnerships and collaborations between the academic and entrepreneurial communities. In keeping with these goals, the Fellowship program comprises two complementary components: the Unfettered Research Grant, and the MRF Startup Collaboration. 

As a Fellow, Christenson will receive $10,000 under the Unfettered Research Grant which he can apply, over the course of a year, towards almost any research oriented activity including conference related travel, and purchases of software and database licenses that will aid him in his work. He will also participate in the MRF Startup Collaboration, a professional development program where he will gain specific skills through the Foundation’s training curriculum, and go on to deploy them to solve a specific problem faced by a startup. The collaborative opportunity starts with matching MRF fellows with a participating startup whose products will have a communal and beneficial impact on society. Christenson will be part of a team of three or four other research fellows and a team mentor. The interdisciplinary team will work together over the course of the academic year and endeavor to solve a science or technology problem that is affecting the advancement of the startup’s existing product. The startup collaboration segment will offer Mistletoe Research Fellows like Christenson the opportunity to combine their own research skills and efforts with those acquired through the foundation’s training curriculum and address real world problems that have widespread social impact.