Grants advance cutting-edge science

April, 2011

Minnesota's Private Colleges have a history of providing a strong liberal arts education — and that includes the sciences. One measure is how our high caliber faculty and commitment to science research has been recognized by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which is currently supporting 93 projects totaling $26.5 million at 11 of our member institutions.

Congress created the NSF in 1950 to fund projects that show promise of contributing significantly to national and international science research efforts. Out of 42,000 proposals received each year, the agency funds about 10,000, following a rigorous and thorough merit review process.

Ben Carlson '11, a chemistry and environmental studies major at Gustavus, with the ICP-MSThrough NSF grants, faculty and students at our institutions are exploring several different areas of science. Jeff Jeremiason, director of the Environmental Studies program at Gustavus Adolphus College, purchased an Inductively Coupled Plasma-Mass Spectrometer. It's being used to measure metals and other elements in samples of water, sediments, soils and rocks.

The instrument has created new means to integrate research and teaching in courses in environmental studies, chemistry and geology, Jeremiason said. "The projects supported by this grant are all interdisciplinary in nature, relating to the understanding of cycling of metals in aquatic ecosystems. They address critical issues impacting aquatic resources in Minnesota, such as mercury deposition and soil erosion."

Concordia students working with the neutron detectorStudents reap the benefits
Bryan Luther, a physics professor at Concordia College in Moorhead, received a grant to design and construct a high-efficiency neutron detector (called LISA) to examine nuclei created with accelerators. "They only last for a tiny fraction of a second so all we see are the products of their breakup, but these nuclei play important roles in the formation of the elements in stars and allow us to better understand the structure and forces of nuclei in general," he said.

The collaboration that Luther works with is primarily made up of undergraduate institutions rather than large research universities. "The project offers opportunities for undergraduate students to participate in the type of science that is usually limited to graduate students or post-docs," he said. Many of the more than 25 undergraduates who worked on the project will be at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory this June to help get the detector running and to analyze the data. Read more about the project.

Supporting budding scientists
Deborah Gross, a chemistry professor at Carleton College, was part of a group of Carleton faculty who wrote a proposal for a program to increase the number of Carleton students from traditionally underrepresented groups (based on race, ethnicity, gender and socio-economic status) who are pursuing science and math degrees. Thanks to their NSF award, more than 50 students in two cohorts receive grants and loan reductions to support their studies.

Gross believes that it's critically important for the population of scientists to reflect the diversity of the U.S. population. "We need to ensure that students from all backgrounds feel that the sciences and math are disciplines in which they can succeed," she said. "This is one of many ways Carleton is trying to nurture their success."

Big effort, big payoff
Finding time to write a competitive proposal to NSF can be challenging, but the benefits are significant. Jeremiason wrote his on sabbatical in Sweden. "I probably spent six full weeks researching available instrumentation, visiting labs at Gothenburg University that had similar instruments, contacting sales reps, cultivating support and developing research ideas with multiple collaborators and finally writing the proposal," he said.

Other projects at our institutions include research on the use of pulsars for interstellar study, development of curricula on physics and geoscience, genomics research, software development for parallel computing and more.

Related Topics: Academic excellence