Project Investigation:Chemistry Students Benefit from Three National Science Foundation Grants

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Three recent grants from the National Science Foundation have expanded the research capacity of UNC Asheville’s Chemistry Department, funding a computational center and several scholarships and stipends for student research.

A grant first awarded in 2011 and led by Associate Professor Sally Wasileski has established a chemistry scholar program with scholarships awarded to incoming freshmen and current students who demonstrate academic merit and financial need. A 2011 grant led by Philip G. Carlson Distinguished Chair Bert Holmes also funds undergraduate researchers who focus on atmospheric chemistry, specifically the long-term behaviors of hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) – soon-to-be-banned compounds that prove difficult to study through experiments alone. Their work, as well as other undergraduate research projects, will now be enhanced by a 2012 grant, managed by Associate Professor George Heard, that will fund the building of a state-of-the art computer cluster in Zeis Hall.

Holmes explained this multi-faceted approach, “You start with this reactant, and we end up with this product, but it goes through a series of steps…. We can’t always investigate that experimentally, but we can investigate it using theoretical approaches. We can use computational investigations to determine if something is worth studying. It helps guide the experimental results. It also works in reverse.”

With the three grants together, students can start their research careers early, get hands-on experience in the lab, and approach the problems through computational and experimental chemistry to determine the best solution. “We know it’s very unusual at a small school like this to have that kind of collaboration,” said Holmes, who has been has been supported by grants from the National Science Foundation for 24 consecutive years and has generated over $2 million in external support.

The Computational Center

The most recent National Science Foundation grant will transform a standard classroom into a computational hub, though from outside of the lab door, it will appear to be several computer terminals, each wired through four mini-fridge-sized black servers.

“It’s essentially 640 computers crammed into this little space. We can assign 640 processes, so it will significantly speed up our ability to run calculations and allow us to run more calculations at the same time,” Heard said.

The computational efforts have been scattered across computers of varying ages, including one from 2004.

“Where it’s virtually impossible to monitor the reaction experimentally because the steps change so fast, you can use computations to develop an enhanced understanding,” said Wasileski. “I joke that you can play God to force a reaction that doesn’t happen experimentally to understand why it doesn’t happen that way. You can understand why a molecule is not one of the products for example. Computational chemistry has a distinct place in understanding and providing insight that complements running the experiment.”

Hands-on Experience

Even with the additional computer capacity, students will still be busy in the labs, completing experiments as part of their classes and undergraduate research, a requirement of all chemistry majors.

“There are two major benefits to working in the lab this summer. The first benefit is the fact that I'm able to get some really great hands-on lab experience that will carry heavily into my future chemistry classes at UNC Asheville and potentially help in future interviews for a job or even medical school,” said Timothy Brown, a sophomore chemistry scholar. “The second benefit is that I'm getting a sense of what agricultural research may be like, and it’s helping me decide if I want to pursue a career in a research area.”

Brown was joined in the lab this summer by sophomores Richard Thompson and Bethany Cook, under the mentorship of Wasileski. The three chemistry majors worked together on a food consumer research project, with individual tasks that formed complete projects. Brown analyzed Cheerios by “digesting” a sample in strong acids and heat, filtering and diluting it, and measuring the atomic absorption of iron, calcium and zinc. Thomas and Cook examined the same compounds in children’s vitamins and prenatal vitamins, respectively. Their goal was to inform manufacturers and consumers of potentially dangerous levels of the compounds.

Publishable results

Undergraduate research projects from the Chemistry Department at UNC Asheville also have a broader reach, impacting local and national audiences through academic research journals.

“When we publish a paper in a journal, we are one of the very few undergraduate institutions in the journal. We want to get the students to the level so they are able to do that. When they go to graduate school or professional school, such as medical school, dental school, or veterinary school, they are much more successful. They have learned to think and to analyze information.” said Holmes.

Senior Sam Rossabi already reached that milestone. His first co-authored paper will be published in September, just in time to add to his resume for graduate school applications. He’s completed his third summer in the lab, with funding from the 2011 research grant. “It’s interesting because it’s different from other subjects,” Rossabi said “I’m analyzing sulfur groups, in an effort to understand the effects of HCFCs on the environment, and more specifically on global warming. The best part is when everything goes the way we hope.” But the chemistry major has the skills and knowledge to handle the unexpected as well. After all, Rossabi became a chemistry major after disliking the subject in high school. Now he’s making it a career.

Learn more about the Chemistry Department at UNC Asheville, including how to apply for a chemistry scholarship, at http://chemistry.unca.edu/chemistryscholars.