Jay Gatlin remembers the look on his mother's face.
He was 4 years old and had just squeezed a very large frog through a bottleneck the size of a quarter.
"It’s one of my earliest memories, largely because of my mother's reaction," Gatlin said.
His mother smashed the bottle and set the frog -- still living -- free.
So started a fascination with the natural world that brought Gatlin, now 41, to the University of Wyoming in 2010, where he teaches and researches in the department of molecular biology.
Last month, Gatlin was named one of 22 Pew Scholars nationwide by the Pew Biomedical Scholars Program for 2014, marking the first time any UW professor has earned the prestigious award, according to a university release.
The award comes with $240,000 over the next four years to boost research among academics in their first few years as assistant professors.
Gatlin earned the Pew award in part because he and several other UW researchers successfully tested a hypothesis about what causes a tiny structure inside a cell to be too big or too small. That structure, called a mitotic spindle, allows a cell to divide.
When the spindle is not the right size or shape, things can go wrong during cell reproduction. Birth defects or cancer can result.
It makes sense, Gatlin said, speaking Thursday from his post at a marine biological laboratory in Massachusetts where he is spending the summer.
Organs that are too big or too small cannot function properly, he said. Think about putting a bison's lungs into a prairie dog's chest.
"If you tried to swap them out, a bison organ into a prairie dog, it's not going to work very well," Gatlin said.
And so it is with cells. Cells whose parts are not proportional to the whole can cause defects during cell division, potentially causing cancer of the formation of an extra chromosome when the cell divides, leading to Down syndrome.
By figuring out what causes the spindle to grow too big or not big enough, scientists in the future may be able to prevent that from happening before it causes genetic defects or transforms into cancer.
"That would be fantastic if we could do something like that," Gatlin said.
To date, his research has focused on a biological question: How does it work? Not yet has he answered the question, "What can we do with this knowledge?"
The funding from Pew will help him study ways to make cancer cells reproduce in such a way that their offspring will die.
When Don Jarvis hired Gatlin, he knew it was a good move.
Jarvis, a professor of molecular biology who was one of several faculty members on the committee that interviewed Gatlin, said Gatlin's mix of "real-world" experience as an engineer and academic training as a molecular biologist was an unusual asset.
"That puts him in a highly competitive position when seeking funding," Jarvis said.
David Fay, another UW molecular biology professor, said Gatlin struck him as creative and a deep thinker.
"You have to take chances in science, and you have to be open to new ideas and new technologies," Fay said. "And that’s been a key to Jay’s success here."
Gatlin, who grew up mostly in Monument, Colo., received a degree in mechanical engineering before earning a doctorate in cellular and developmental biology in Denver.
Teaching is a challenge for Gatlin, but it's one he loves, he said. As much as he can, he uses analogies to explain complex notions in a way that even the least scientifically inclined person can understand.
Being both a talented researcher and an effective teacher is a difficult balance for university researchers, Jarvis said. Gatlin pulls it off.
"I love the freedom of being able to pursue what I want to pursue," Gatlin said of his research. "It’s so satisfying to answer a question or observe something that no one else has done before and seen before."
The Pew scholarship is an enormous and well-deserved recognition for Gatlin, said John Oakey, a UW biomedical engineering professor and co-author of a recent article published in Science magazine with Gatlin and one of Gatlin's graduate students, James Hazel. Oakey builds tools Gatlin uses in his research.
For Gatlin, the Pew funding is a chance to do more research.
"Any affirmation is hugely appreciated, that the research I'm doing is interesting and potentially impactful," Gatlin said. "The Pew is in a way a validation of that."
The Science article Gatlin helped write was a validation, too. Being published in such a prestigious magazine was an accomplishment so farfetched that Gatlin celebrated by planting a permanent reminder on his bicep -- a fresh tattoo shaped like a jellyfish whose tentacles form the mitotic spindle Gatlin has studied through so many microscopes.
Fay, Gatlin's colleague at UW, said he hopes it's a new tradition for the rising scientist.
"I wish him many more tattoos," Fay said.
Reach education reporter Leah Todd at 307-266-0592 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @leahktodd.