Van Andel Institute scientist nets $2.4 million award to study ‘cellular powerhouses’

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (August 30, 2023) — Our cells are powered by tiny “powerplants” called mitochondria, which transform nutrients into fuel that sustains life.

But there’s more to the story of mitochondria, says Van Andel Institute Assistant Professor Sara Nowinski, Ph.D.

Thanks to a new five-year, nearly $2.4 million Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health, Nowinski will have additional resources to explore the innerworkings of these crucial cellular components and usher in a new understanding of how mitochondria function and power the body.

Dr. Sara Nowinski, Van Andel Institute.

“Mitochondria are hubs for metabolism. We know they’re great at breaking nutrients down to generate energy but what is less known is that they also build things, namely fats. The question is why?” Nowinski said. “This award will allow us to seek answers by digging deep into the details of how mitochondria do their jobs and how they impact health and disease.”

Each cell in the human body — all 37.2 trillion of them — contains between 1,000 to 2,500 mitochondria, which convert oxygen, sugars and fatty acids into a cellular fuel called ATP. Breakdowns in this vital process have been linked to a host of diseases, including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, heart disease and diabetes.

But mitochondria also inexplicably build chains of fatty acids, a process Nowinski believes acts as a conn ector between nutrient sources and energy.

“Based on our research, we think this pathway links the nutritional environment of cells to their ability to generate energy,” she said. “How this process happens and why it happens is not well understood. The Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award will enable us to find answers and reshape what we know about mitochondria.”

Maximizing Investigators’ Research Awards are highly competitive and provide scientists “with greater stability and flexibility, thereby enhancing scientific productivity and the chances for important breakthroughs,” according to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Nowinski is the sixth VAI scientist in the last six years to earn a MIRA. She joined VAI’s Department of Metabolism and Nutritional Programming in 2021.

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under award no. R35GM151245 (Nowinski). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.


Van Andel Institute (VAI) is committed to improving the health and enhancing the lives of current and future generations through cutting-edge biomedical research and innovative educational offerings. Established in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1996 by the Van Andel family, VAI is now home to nearly 500 scientists, educators and support staff, who work with a growing number of national and international collaborators to foster discovery. The Institute’s scientists study the origins of cancer, Parkinson’s and other diseases and translate their findings into breakthrough prevention and treatment strategies. Our educators develop inquiry-based approaches for K-12 education to help students and teachers prepare the next generation of problem-solvers, while our Graduate School offers a rigorous, research-intensive Ph.D. program in molecular and cellular biology. Learn more at vai.org.