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by Molly O'Brien-Foelsch
LEWISBURG, Pa. — Like the World-Champion San Francisco Giants, Bucknell's Department of Chemistry won four out of four this year, receiving more than half a million dollars in funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The Research at Undergraduate Institutions grants will fund summer stipends for undergraduates, research equipment, supplies and chemicals over the next three years. Typically, less than a quarter of such proposals get funded.
"The NSF is one of America's leading agencies for science grants," says department chair and Professor of Chemistry Tim Strein. "The awards it makes are an indicator of excellent scientific work."
Unraveling a debate
Strein and Professor of Chemistry David Rovnyak received an award to investigate the precise functionality of bile micelles — electrically charged aggregates of naturally occurring molecules. "For 50 years, scientists have struggled to understand this important class of micelles," says Rovnyak. "We think we have begun to unravel the debate." The team hopes its findings might lead to improved applications such as chemical separations and drug delivery, and improve the understanding of bile in physiology.
Technology for the 21st Century
With his NSF award, Professor of Chemistry Charles Clapp and a group of undergraduate researchers are trying to determine how enzymes work so well at catalyzing reactions. The team is "tinkering with" a particular class of enzymes called lipoxygenases, which are found in soybeans. The researchers are altering the enzymes' DNA and changing the substrate — the molecule on which the enzyme acts — to identify the exact position on the molecule where the catalytic reaction takes place. "Catalysis is one of the most important technologies of the 21st century," he says. "It can help us develop chemical products more efficiently and with fewer by-products."
Clay mineral swelling
Associate Professor of Chemistry Molly McGuire received funding to study how water gets incorporated into the sheet-like layers of clay minerals. Using the University's atomic force microscope, she and her team are measuring the distance between the layers on the nanoscale. "It's an experimental approach to studying clay that hasn't been used before," says McGuire. "We can take a stack of clay layers and change the chemical environment around it to see what's happening. Knowing more about the 'swelling' process is critical to our understanding of how plants get their nutrients and how contaminants move through the environment."
Cloud formation and climate change
Receiving the largest of the four grants was Dean of Arts and Sciences George Shields, whose work has been widely published, including in Science, one of the world's most respected peer-reviewed journals. Shields, along with postdoctoral fellow Berhane Temelso and a group of undergraduate researchers are using high-speed computing to predict how and where water and other molecules will cluster to form clouds.
"We're looking at the beginning steps of how molecules come together by calculating accurate structure and energies of all possible clusters so that we can predict the mechanism for cluster formation," he says. The results may help scientists understand how clouds will affect the pace of climate change. "The biggest uncertainty in climate change models is what happens when clouds form," says Shields. High and white ones will reflect the sun's radiation and return it back into space, slowing warming. Low and gray clouds will absorb infrared radiation coming off the earth and accelerate warming.
Students at the center
Each of these NSF-supported research projects includes funding for undergraduate research stipends.
First-year student Natasha Bassett has been at Bucknell for little more than a semester, but she is already contributing to Clapp's research on enzymes. "I'm working with high-performance liquid chromatography in order to find out the point at which a certain reaction occurs," says Bassett. "To have this opportunity to actually complete critical lab work is absolutely incredible."
Senior Katurah Klein is using the high-speed computers in Shields' lab to investigate the structure of aerosols containing sulfuric acid, ammonia and water molecules. "From the calculations, we were able to speculate the likelihood of these structures forming in the atmosphere," says Klein. "I plan on becoming a high school chemistry teacher, and I'll be able to bring a different side of chemistry to my classroom someday."
For his senior honors thesis, Mike Mattei is collaborating with McGuire on her efforts to understand clay mineral swelling. The work, he says, has a wide variety of geological, agricultural and soil science applications, including the building of dams and levees, oil drilling and remediation of environmental contaminants. "I feel that I've been well prepared to go to graduate school to pursue a doctorate in chemistry," says Mattei.
Kendall Sandy began to do research the spring of her sophomore year while taking Analytical Chemistry with Strein. "It's completely changed the way that I think about problems," says Sandy, a senior who works with Strein and Rovnyak on their bile micelle project. "I've learned there are many aspects and details to consider — and always several different approaches to take."
"Students are at the center of it all," says Strein. "Our students work side-by-side with the faculty in the lab on publishable projects. They get to use research-grade instruments, present at professional conferences and become co-authors on peer-reviewed publications. In short, they are turning into scientists."
In addition to the NSF awards, Bucknell's chemistry department and faculty recently received awards from the Beckman-Coulter Instrument Grant Program, the American Chemical Society and its Petroleum Research Fund, the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. || Related: Beckman Foundation grant to support undergraduate research
"It is gratifying that the quality of the work being carried out by our faculty and students has received such solid external validation," says Strein. "It's been an unprecedented year."
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