Highly-competitive grant offered to WU for research on complex materials

Winthrop will be part of a $20 million National Science Foundation award for Research Infrastructure and Improvement, which will be given to 10 South Carolina institutions over the next five years. Winthrop will receive $1.1 million of aid to research complex materials. The award was announced Sept. 19.

The federal grant is highly competitive and institutions across the country contended for it. The funding granted to Winthrop will allow 36 summer student research experiences and enable faculty to acquire the resources needed to support the research and make any needed improvements. Winthrop will receive $330 thousand for capital equipment and major upgrades used by students.

The research investigators for the project include Maria Gelabert, who holds a Ph.D. in physical inorganic chemistry, the project director, as well as Drs. Fatima Amir, Clifton Harris, Jason Hurlbert and Robin Lammi. Pat Owens, who holds a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry, is the  chair of chemistry, physics and geology and the budget and reporting director.

The initiative, Materials Assembly and Design Excellence in South Carolina: MADE in SC, is managed by the state’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research. The EPSCoR office responded to the NSF funding announcement by gathering various research investigators around the state who have similar research interests. EPSCoR reached out to PUI institutions for smaller research proposals. Winthrop was selected to participate based on the quality of the research they proposed.

“Multi-institution grants, such as this one, are special because of the number of faculty involved,” Gelabert said. “Here we have approximately 60 people involved in a host of research, education, outreach and administrative activities.”

The funding will be used for purchasing equipment, paying for student researchers and sending students to conferences.

“It’s going to be great for the students,” Amir said. “Our students are very invested in research, and this is important for the future generations of scientists. Most of our students go to graduate school, so they need to have that experience in research. The job market for scientists is also very competitive.”

The faculty development research funds will aid three faculty members with their key research initiatives. These include Amir, who will research electronic materials, as well as Gelabert and Harris who will both research optical materials.

Hurlbert and Lammi will research biomaterials and optical materials, respectively, as they work in infrastructure development.

According to Winthrop’s webpage, the project focuses on the development of intelligently designed optical and magnetic materials, polymers and stimuli-response materials, which will benefit commercial applications such as lasers, water treatment and regenerative medicine.

The research focuses on a variety of solid materials, from optical crystals such as zinc oxide, to biomaterials such as proteins. It therefore spans a wide scale of sizes from atoms to millimeters in the solid state.

“A critical aspect, and I believe most challenging, is linking together synthesis of these materials with computational expertise, so that computer modeling will be used to predict structures or assemblies that might be useful before synthesis,” Gelabert said. “Finding new materials is a technological goal, both in SC Vision 2025 and the U.S. Materials Genome Initiative.”

Gelabert’s research will focus on synthesis of nanoparticles and hydrothermal discovery of new optical materials. Amir will be working with supercapacitors, a type of electrical capacitor that can store a large amount of energy.

Harris will work in the area of photocatalysis, the branch of chemistry that focuses on using energy in the form of light to drive unfavorable reactions. Plants do this daily by photosynthesis, using sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into food in the form of glucose.

“I’m essentially looking to design devices that somewhat mimic that process,” Harris said. “Specifically, I aim to convert water to hydrogen and oxygen gases, with the intent of using the former as a clean and renewable energy source to help power our ever-growing world.”

Amir said she was excited to learn about the award because it will allow her to expand her research here at Winthrop and to work with new students.

“I love being in the lab, I love having my hands dirty and working with the equipment, and if I can transfer that to my students it makes my day,” Amir said.

Besides research, Winthrop will also be developing two-week summer teacher workshops to expand outreach to regional high schools. These workshops will be led by Drs. Ponn Maheswaranathan and Cliff Calloway.

“I’m personally very excited about infusing Winthrop, and institutions across the state, with more education and training focused on materials,” Gelabert said. “These materials are the future of technology, which will help increase energy sustainability and efficiency, improve waste management, develop self-repairing polymers and other intelligent materials, and biofabrication from the nanoscale to microscale.”

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