Paul S. Knoepfler, one of UC Davis School of Medicine's recent stem cell recruits, received a prestigious Basil O'Connor Starter Scholar Research Award from the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation. The $150,000, two-year grant will be used to analyze links in stem cells, looking for epigenetic changes that may lead to birth defects. Epigenetics is the study of the mechanism by which the environment influences gene expression independent of mutations. Knoepfler, assistant professor of cell biology and human anatomy at the medical school and assistant investigator at Shriner's Hospital for Children Northern California, specializes in stem cell and cancer-related research. Some of his work focuses on deciphering how stem cells are programmed and how that programming can go awry, thereby causing birth defects or cancer. Knoepfler, who joined UC Davis less than two years ago, said that the knowledge gained from the studies may help prevent birth defects by identifying how specific environmental factors alter the stem cell functions that are key to normal development.