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1998-1999 University Research Professors

by Alicia P. Gregory

Two faculty members were named University Research Professors for 1998-99 by the UK Board of Trustees. They are Joseph Chappell, agronomy, and Peter Eklund, physics. Chappell studies the mechanisms plants use to defend themselves against microbial attack. He is currently working to understand how plants turn on defense genes that produce antibiotic agents. He is also focusing on redesigning the enzymes responsible for synthesizing these antibiotics with the goal of generating novel antibiotic-like compounds for possible human medicinal application.

The professorship will allow Chappell to fund the continuing research of two postdoctoral students in his laboratory as well as support a new program. "I'm going to offer stipends of $2,500 to two students in the College of Education to work with me to develop an outreach effort to area high schools dealing with DNA science," he says. Chappell currently brings loaner lab equipment to high schools and community colleges three times each semester. "My goal is for these education students to get a feel for how opportunities to use specialized equipment for DNA science might be integrated into standard science curriculum," he says. Chappell has taught at UK since 1985.

Eklund has studied the properties and potential applications of "buckyballs," a family of all-carbon molecules whose discovery achieved notoriety in 1996 when Richard Smalley from Rice University won a Nobel Prize for their discovery. More recently, Eklund has helped to develop a new, very long form of the molecules called nanotubes [see also, Thinking Big by Thinking Small]

"The ideal structure of a nanotube can be thought of as a hexagonal network of carbon atoms rolled up into a seamless tube," Eklund says.

Because nanotubes have unusual strength and high electrical/thermal conductivity, scientists and industry are eager to mass produce them in order to explore applications ranging from new building materials to cellular-level drug delivery devices.

During his year as a research professor, Eklund will continue work to "scale-up" nanotube production through his transition-metal-catalyzed hot carbon plasma process, explore new catalysts, conduct fundamental optical and transport experiments, and test applications including nanotube-polymer composites, Li ion batteries, and macroscopic filaments with nanotube additives. The professorship will allow Eklund to purchase new research equipment and provide support to a postdoctoral student working in his laboratory. Eklund has taught at UK since 1977.

The research professorships were established in 1977 to recognize outstanding researchers and encourage further scholarly research. Recipients use the $30,000 award to cover their expenses and teaching duties so that they may devote themselves to full-time research for a year.