UW-Eau Claire: Chemistry Department Receives $600,000 in NSF Funding

MAILED: Sept. 22, 2205

EAU CLAIRE — Faculty in the chemistry department at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire have secured more than $600,000 in grant money from the National Science Foundation in recent weeks — funds that will help them purchase state-of-the-art instrumentation and support faculty-student research.

“This is a huge influx of resources for a department like ours and it’ll have a significant impact on what we can do for our students,” Dr. Scott Hartsel, chair of the chemistry department, said of the three most recent grant awards. “Bringing $600,000 in federal dollars back to Eau Claire is no small feat.”

The NSF funding will enable the chemistry department to purchase instrumentation and support the kinds of student-faculty research that’s rarely found outside of large research institutions, Hartsel said. Other master’s level colleges or universities with similar instruments and research opportunities are expensive private institutions, he said.

“NSF grants are highly competitive,” Hartsel said, noting that in the last five years the chemistry department has received more than $2 million in NSF funding and UW-Eau Claire overall has received more than $4.2 million in NSF funding. “But the NSF looks very kindly on what we do on this campus in terms of faculty-student research.”

The university’s commitment to using grant dollars to introduce students to hands-on science is among the things that make it so attractive to NSF reviewers, said Dr. Stephen Drucker, associate professor of chemistry and the recipient of a recent $190,000 NSF grant.
“We have an exceptional record of getting people to be professional scientists,” Drucker said. “One of the things NSF looks at is the broader impact on the science pipeline. And we have a big impact. We’re one of the highest producers in the country of future chemistry Ph.D.s.”

With its high numbers of women and first-generation students, the NSF recognizes that UW-Eau Claire is introducing the concept of a career in science to populations who may not have considered it an option, Hartsel said.
“We’re showing first-generation students and women that they can have science careers,” Hartsel said. “That’s exactly the kind of impact the NSF expects when awarding grants.”

Early in their academic careers — often as freshmen or sophomores — students have experiences that they couldn’t get in some Ph.D. programs, Hartsel said. “What we do here is unheard of for a mid-sized public university,” he said. “Everyone is committed to working with students one-on-one from the freshman level on up.”

With the NSF funds, the department will purchase sophisticated instruments that can be automated and/or run from remote locations, Hartsel said. As a result, even more students will have access to them, he said.

“If you have a $300,000 instrument, you’re only going to have one,” Hartsel said. “So providing access to numerous students was challenging. But with the level of sophistication of these new instruments, we can greatly expand the number of students who use them.

“And that’s important because science is like music — you learn to play better by doing it. You learn to be a scientist by actively doing science.”

External funding also allows faculty to hire students to work in their labs, giving students even more real-world experience, Hartsel said. In the last five years, the department has used external funds to pay students more than $350,000 to work on science projects, he said.

“We’d rather pay students to work on science than to have them working at an off-campus job that’s unrelated to their careers,” Hartsel said. “Here they get an experience that’s like an internship. It gives them great experiences while allowing them to make ends meet.”

Those kinds of experiences will make students more employable after they graduate and make them more attractive to top graduate schools, Hartsel said.

The quality of the instrumentation also creates opportunities to provide services to private businesses and industries, as well as other nearby colleges and universities, Hartsel said.
“Between Minneapolis and Madison, we’ll have the most sophisticated instrumentation of any college or university,” Hartsel said. “That opens a lot of possibilities for contracting with others who could benefit from what we have on campus. We’re still thinking through our options but we’re interested in making what we have in our department available on a regional basis.”
NSF grants awarded to the chemistry department in recent weeks include:

· A $290,035 grant to support a project titled “Upgrade of 400 MHz Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectrometer for Faculty-Student Collaborative Research.” The grant will enable the university to purchase a new, highly sophisticated spectrometer, of which students will be the primary users. It will replace a 12-year-old spectrometer, an upgrade that will expand the instrument’s capabilities by taking advantage of advances in NMR technology. The project is under the direction of Dr. Warren Gallagher, associate professor of chemistry, and Dr. Alan Gengenbach, assistant professor of chemistry.

· A $100,000 grant for a project titled “Chromatography Opportunities for Learning and Understanding of Modern Separations,” under the direction of Dr. Marcus McEllistrem, associate professor of chemistry, and Dr. Robert Eierman, professor of chemistry. Chromatography is a key method in most chemical subdiscipline and interdisciplinary fields such as pharmaceuticals, forensics and environmental science. With the NSF funding, UW-Eau Claire will provide students with training in the most common separation method, high performance liquid chromatography. Students will use modern instruments in student-centered, student-driven projects.

· A $190,000 grant for a project titled “RUI: Cavity Ringdown Spectroscopy of Cyclic Enones in Triplet Excited States,” under the direction of Drucker. Drucker’s research examines how light activates molecules. By exposing molecules to the right color of light, it’s possible to cause the molecules to undergo chemical reactions that otherwise would not be possible. Drucker and his students are studying how chemical bonds become weaker and more susceptible to reaction when exposed to light from a laser.