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2013 Cottrell Scholars Announced

February 26, 2013

Tucson, AZ – February 25, 2013 – Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA), America’s first foundation dedicated wholly to science, founded in 1912, announces its annual major U.S. science/teaching awards: 13 Cottrell Scholar grants for 2013, totaling $975,000.

Cottrell Scholars receive $75,000 each in recognition of their scientific research as well as their dedication to teaching. The awards are made to early-career science educators in the physical sciences and related fields. Only about 10 percent of those who apply for this award are approved by RCSA’s rigorous peer-review process.

Originality, feasibility, and the prospect for significant fundamental advances to science are the main criteria for judging the candidates’ research, while contributions to education, especially at the undergraduate level, aspirations for teaching, and the candidates’ proposed strategies to achieve educational objectives are factors in assessing their teaching plans.

The newly named Cottrell Scholars join 251 Cottrell Scholars at more than 115 colleges and universities. Cottrell Scholars are also members of the Cottrell Scholars Collaborative, a network of scholar educators who meet annually to share their methods to increase the retention of undergraduate science majors.

This year’s Cottrell Scholar Awards go to:

 

Theodor Agapie
Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering 
California Institute of Technology

The process by which plants and cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) produce oxygen is poorly understood. Agapie will attempt to synthesize, manipulate and study a complex manganese-containing molecule that models the site playing a central role in the protein that these organisms rely on to produce oxygen. 

In his educational work, he plans to develop close ties among graduate, undergraduate and high-school students through a high-school outreach program that includes designing new experiments, career mentoring and organizing visits to Caltech.  Such a program would encourage more students to major in science, Agapie says.

 

Gordana Dukovic
Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry
University of Colorado, Boulder

Gallium-Zinc oxy(nitrides) are a group of materials interesting to researchers for their ability to absorb sunlight in a novel way and transfer that energy into the work of splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. Such compounds may one day be key to producing clean, renewable fuels. Dukovic is interested in understanding precisely how these materials work, and perhaps, boosting their efficiencies by developing them into nanocrystalline forms – that is, very tiny crystals. She hopes to do so because matter behaves differently – sometimes much more efficiently – at the nano, or very small, scale.

The goal of her educational project is to develop 10 instructional modules integrating solar energy research into UC Boulder’s undergraduate physical chemistry course on quantum mechanics and spectroscopy. Quantum mechanics deals with the behavior of subatomic particles such as photons and electrons – their interactions are central to the creation of electricity from sunlight. Spectroscopy is the study of the interaction between matter and radiated energy such as light. By coupling these fields of study with solar energy research, Dukovic hopes to attract students interested in solving real-world problems.

 

Henriette Elvang
Associate Professor of Physics
University of Michigan                                 

When physicists study subatomic particles, they must carefully consider the energy levels the particles are experiencing. For example, at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerland, proton-proton collisions take place at extremely high energies. For all practical purposes these energy levels allow scientists to treat protons as if they have no mass. At lower energies, however, the mass of the proton becomes an important factor in scientific calculations. A key tool for taking energy levels into account is called “renormalization.” Elvang will study the formal properties of renormalization as they apply to theoretical particle physics, string theory, and condensed matter physics.

The educational portion of her project involves developing a sophomore-level undergraduate course encouraging students to develop – and learn to value – scientific writing and oral presentation skills as an integral part of what it means to be a scholar. She also aims to create an enhanced “active learning” process that goes well beyond passively absorbing knowledge from a classroom lecture.

 

Tobias Golling
Assistant Professor of Physics 
Yale University                                                             

Physicists achieved a new milestone in their understanding of the universe with the recent discovery of a Higgs-like boson at CERN in Switzerland. And that may be only the beginning of the discoveries to flow from the LHC. Researchers continue to face many unanswered questions: what is the nature of dark matter, what is the origin of the matter-antimatter asymmetry in the universe or is there a unification of forces? These questions are essential to our understanding of the physical world. Golling is reformulating that quest to ask if there are any new particles, beyond our current best knowledge, represented by the Standard Model, our current best understanding of how the universe works.

The educational portion of his project will allow students to participate in his hunt for potential partners of the elemental particle called the top quark, as predicted by a theoretical extension of the Standard Model called Weak scale Supersymmetry (SUSY).

 

Danilo Marchesini
Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy
Tufts University

Galaxy formation is one of the major unsolved puzzles in astrophysics. And one of the most controversial questions in this area is when and how the most massive galaxies formed. Marchesini aims to comprehensively characterize, for the first time, the properties (number density, star-formation activity and other qualities) of ultra-massive galaxies formed early in the history of the universe. He notes that the existence of a significant population of these “monster” galaxies when the universe was only about 3 billion years old poses problems for the standard model of galaxy formation.

The educational portion of his project involves promoting active learning, as opposed to passively learning through lectures, in an introductory course of astronomy for non-science majors. He will emphasize critical thinking and active discussions in the course. One of his major goals is to provide undergraduate students (both science and non-science majors) with the opportunity to do research through a network of remote, robotically controlled, automatically queued telescopes located worldwide. The network is maintained by the American Association of Variable Star Observers.

 

Ognjen Š. Miljanic
Assistant Professor of Chemistry
University of  Houston                                

It can take considerable time, material, labor and numerous exacting steps in the laboratory for scientists to synthesize the sophisticated molecules we need for industry and medicine. By contrast, starting with complex “soups” of precursors in living cells, nature elegantly and simultaneously creates even more complex molecules with incredible precision. Miljanic hopes to imitate nature by achieving what is called “molecular self-sorting” in synthetic (manmade) mixtures of chemical compounds. If he succeeds, he intends to use that process to rapidly discover new chemical reactions. The ultimate goal is to begin to emulate, at least in a primitive way, the signaling and compartmentalization processes through which nature efficiently manufactures many of the molecules necessary for life. Miljanic then aims to apply these insights in the preparation of new molecules for use in sensing, separations, and energy relevant application.

The educational portion of Miljanic’s project will lead to the creation of “eLectures” – digitized searchable recordings of his lectures that will replace textbooks. He also plans to develop a general education class on the scientific, engineering and policy implications of various energy sources. Additionally, he will involve undergraduate and local high-school students in original research in his laboratory. Finally, Miljanic will use 3D printing to create customized teaching models for use in Organic and Physical Organic Chemistry classes.

 

Eric J. Schelter
Assistant Professor of Chemistry
University of Pennsylvania                                                   

Wind turbine generators, hybrid and electric vehicles as well as fiber optics, cell phones and flat-panel displays all require high-purity rare earth metals in their manufacture. China currently produces about 97 percent of the world’s supply of rare earth metals. In 2010 the Chinese government announced it would reduce exports of these vital materials by 72 percent, citing the environmental damage caused by mining and processing operations. The elements must be separated from their composite mineral sources, a process that requires the use of environmentally taxing acids and solvents. Schelter’s goal is to develop efficient, environmentally friendly separations processes for certain high-value rare earth metals based on their unique physical and chemical properties.

Schelter, a tireless communicator for science, sees this research project as an educational opportunity. Through his continuing lectures on campus and off, he is working to interest students and the general public in the urgent problems associated with rare earth metals mining and processing. He reaches out to high school and college chemistry students to highlight the dichotomy between renewable energy devices and the environmental damage done by mining and processing the rare earth metals used in those devices.

 

Zachary D. Schultz    
Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry
University of Notre Dame                                                                              

The cells of our bodies are continually ejecting tiny bits of debris. Now researchers are realizing these so-called microparticles may be useful indicators of numerous ills, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer. It is yet unclear how many types of the particles exist and precisely how to read them. Schultz’s goal is to improve on current methods of flow cytometry to detect and classify individual microparticles in the bloodstream. (Flow cytometry is a laser-based technology used to count cells and other items by suspending them in a stream of fluid and passing them by an electronic detector.) His strategy utilizes nanostructurs to enhance Raman spectroscopy, a chemically specific laser-based technique for analyzing molecules.

Schultz’s educational goal is to better familiarize undergraduate students with the instruments of chemistry and how instrumentation influences our understanding of scientific problems. A key component of this process requires students to ask a specific scientific question that can be addressed using the instrumentation available in on-campus research facilities. By providing meaningful, high-quality undergraduate laboratory experiences with state-of-the-art instrumentation, he hopes to encourage students to pursue scientific careers.

 

Jorge Torres
Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry
University of California Los Angeles

                                                                                     

Living cells grow by dividing. The process, called mitosis, generally results in two genetically identical cells. Unfortunately, biochemists’ ability to understand precisely how mitosis works has been hampered by a lack of highly selective chemical probes. Torres aims to address this issue. He and his associates have already identified a number of interesting compounds that inhibit cell division. In this project he will analyze the compounds and pinpoint which proteins they target. He notes, “This study will have an immediate impact on the field of cell biology by providing critical tools which can be used to dissect and increase our understanding of the fundamental mechanisms required for cell division.”

Torres proposes to integrate this research into a new education course for chemistry and biochemistry undergraduate students. This course will encourage independent, critical thinking, provide opportunities to engage in research, and, ultimately, help students publish their findings in scientific journals. In the process students will gain the confidence, skills and training needed to be competitive in the next phase of their scientific careers.

 

Anton Vorontsov
Assistant Professor of Physics    
Montana State University                                                                

Superconductivity and magnetism are both fascinating phenomena. For a long while, physicists assumed the two states were more or less exclusive of one another. In recent years, however, researchers have begun to learn how they can coexist, and the potential implications are great for exotic new physics, as well as nanoelectronics and quantum computing, among other advances. Vorontsov is investigating material in which superconductivity and magnetism appear together. He is attempting to develop a theory describing precisely how these states behave in close proximity. If successful, he hopes to be able to better explain and predict their interplay in certain metal compounds known to be superconducting at relatively warm temperatures. Perhaps one day his work will lead to a low-energy use, superfast, magnetically levitated train.

The education part of his project takes the form of a new undergraduate course that will mix mathematics, physics and “magic” (exciting physics and math demonstrations). The interactive class will allow students to apply, “re-learn” at a new level, and bring together different branches of physics and mathematical skills as way to have fun with science. Vorontsov says that with some adjustments such course could be taught at the graduate level or used in a high-school outreach program.

 

Donald A. Watson
Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry
University of Delaware                                                       

A group of compounds known as “silylacetylides” are extraordinarily useful intermediates, or helpers, in the synthesis of complex and bioactive organic molecules. Watson proposes to develop a new way to create silylacetylides by using certain metal molecules to catalyze reactions in a group of compounds called “alkynes.” (Alkynes represent various forms of hydrocarbon. Acetylene, the main fuel for some welding torches, is the simplest alkyne.) If his work is successful, Watson could create a powerful new chemistry tool for science and industry.

The education portion of his project calls for the development a bridge course to transition non-chemistry majors from the mathematical rigors of general chemistry to the qualitative/inductive reasoning required for organic chemistry. Entitled “Sex, Drugs and Alcohol: Organic Chemistry of Everyday Life,” Watson says the class will draw on practical examples of chemistry at work – presumably in positive, and not-so-positive ways. Some aspects of the course material will also be offered for use in freshman and high-school chemistry courses.

 

Andrew A. West 
Assistant Professor of Astronomy
Boston University                                                      

Very low-mass (VLM) stars make up some of the least visible items in the Milky Way. But astronomers have found they are nevertheless extremely common and therefore a major source of ordinary matter in our galaxy. Some of the difficulty in studying how these stars form and evolve can be overcome through the use of large statistical samples. West proposes to do so by taking advantage of the raw, unprocessed data now available from numerous existing all-sky surveys. He believes it will be possible to mine the data for precise astrometry – measurements of the positions and movements of stars – for millions of VLMs and to create a large “proper motion” catalog. (The “proper motion” of a star is its angular change in position over time as viewed from an arbitrary, but very specific, reference point in our solar system, namely its center of mass.)  He will be paying close attention to binary (two-star) systems in the hope they will reveal addition information when it comes to evaluating competing models of VLM formation.

The education portion of his project involves creating a formal outreach program, the BU Pre-Major Program. The goal is to recruit first-year underrepresented students and expose them to research, provide them with valuable mentoring, as well as social contacts among their peers, and ultimately increase the number of students majoring in STEM fields. Such an approach builds on West’s personal experience with diversity programming and directly addresses what is perhaps the most critical transition point in the educational pipeline – the transition from high school to college.

 

Arthur Winter
Assistant Professor of Chemistry
Iowa State University                                                              

Bio-imaging – the various processes by which scientists are able to peer into living organisms – has yielded astonishing advancements in pure knowledge, as well as new medical treatments and an increasing ability to manipulate various organisms. But bio-imaging has yet to reach its full potential, Winter points out, because researchers lack chemical probes that can fully reveal how enzymes behave in living cells. (Enzymes are proteins that act as catalysts, speeding up or inhibiting the work of the cell as programmed by the DNA instructions contained in the cell’s nucleus.) Currently, fluorescent dyes are used to reveal enzyme activity. But the problem is that these dyes can’t be “switched off,” a shortcoming that limits researchers to a “snapshot” view of an enzyme at work. What’s needed is moving pictures. To achieve this goal, Winter proposes incorporating a molecular “suicide switch” into the chemical structure of the dyes to kill their glow when required. Given a “family” of these dyes that go dark at various tunable rates, researchers will be better able to image both fast and slow enzyme activities in the cell in real time.

Winter’s education plan involves three major initiatives that fit with Iowa State’s mission: He will expose freshmen in advanced general chemistry classes to real-world research much earlier in their academic careers by giving them the opportunity to interview successful female faculty, with the video interviews posted online. He will also edit a new edition of Pushing Electrons, a workbook for undergraduate organic chemistry.  And he will add new animated illustrations to his highly-popular Organic Chemistry Help! Website (chemhelper.com).  It helps undergraduates to visualize chemical reactions.

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