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Rising to the NSF Challenge

by Kim Cumbie

The National Science Foundation issued an open challenge: design an innovative graduate education and research training program for scientists and engineers. The foundation received 620 proposals in response, and after fierce competition the University of Kentucky joined ranks with 16 other awardees of NSF Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) grants. The list reads like a "Who's Who" in top university research—Harvard, the University of Texas–Austin, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison, to name a few. The IGERT award reflects research quality in UK's chemistry, chemical and materials engineering, and electrical engineering departments, all of which participate in the initiative.

Photo of Leonidas BachasLeonidas Bachas says that a primary focus of the IGERT grant is to answer the real-world challenge for engineers to be adept at working in teams.

"NSF gave us funds to enhance what is already here," says IGERT program director Leonidas Bachas. In part, UK's competitive edge resulted from departmental research track records and well-established collaborations. The departments realized the industrial need for cross-disciplinary training of Ph.D.s long before NSF announced the IGERT program.

"There's a need in the real world for graduates at the Ph.D. level who can work in teams," says Bachas, also a professor of chemistry. "A lot of the problems our society faces now in terms of research and engineering are multidisciplinary in nature, so they have to be addressed by taking advantage of tools from more than one discipline."

The five-year, $2.25 million NSF award for UK's project, "Integrated Sensing Architectures," provides education, research and training for 15 Ph.D. students who have an advisor in their primary department and receive mentoring from advisors in other disciplines.

"The IGERT program emphasizes interdisciplinary work, collaboration among departments, interaction with industry and training our students to excel in new cutting-edge arenas," says Janet Lumpp, professor of electrical engineering. "The laboratory facilities of the various research groups are open to all of the IGERT fellows, so they have access to instruments not available in their home departments."

Graduating chemistry Ph.D. student Jennifer Lewis says the program's multidisciplinary aspects helped her secure a position with Pfizer pharmaceuticals. "One strong benefit is that you demonstrate through the IGERT program that you can work with scientists in other disciplines." She says interviewers told her they were particularly interested in her combined disciplines, analytical chemistry and molecular biology, as industry projects a future need for scientists with multidisciplinary backgrounds.

"By working with scientists in other disciplines, you get a whole new perspective on your project, your results and how to come up with new applications for your project," she says. Lewis's primary research focus was development of analytical tests for small biomolecules. Her IGERT research with primary professor Sylvia Daunert of chemistry and with Bachas was intriguing; she genetically engineered a light-producing protein to identify thyroxin, a human hormone.

Photo of Jennifer LewisJennifer Lewis's poster presentation focused on a light-prducing protein she engineered to identify thyroxin, a human hormone.

"You get twice the attention on your project, and by working with two professors, you get the contacts of both and the knowledge of both. When you have problems, two professors might ask you to do two totally different things; it's great to have two inputs on your project," she says.

Not only do IGERT fellows benefit from having more than one professor, they also gain a wealth of knowledge imparted by visiting speakers during weekly seminars. The program provides students with funds for travel to conferences and meetings, students present posters at an annual mini-symposium and have special classes designed to promote cross-disciplinary interaction.

A four-week experimental summer course provided IGERT fellows the opportunity for hands-on experience in casting membranes, screen printing films, laser micromachining, electrochemistry and membrane characterization. As a finale, students wrote a mock proposal using an NSF Request for Proposals as a template. Lumpp believes the ideas generated by students after learning the new techniques may someday result in formal proposal submissions. IGERT fellows will continue to have classes which integrate different areas of emphasis to expand both research and teaching capacities, and all are required to attend a research ethics course.

"We give students a scenario and ask, 'What would you have done?' Putting students into problem-solving group situations helps prepare them for future academics and industry," says Dibakar Bhattacharyya, professor of chemical and materials engineering. "IGERT has opened the door for faculty and students to learn from one another. The students are excited, and it's invigorating for faculty." He attended the summer course and added a new tool to his own repertoire by participating in a demonstration of microlaser technology. And, while providing a foundation for new skills, the interaction also sparks new ideas.

"It will be a great advantage," says Chris Ball, a first-year chemistry Ph.D. student. "Instead of creating a generation of chemists, now we'll have a generation of chemists who understand engineering models."

Ball participated in a summer internship at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. He joined NASA's only research group dedicated to the development of sensors for space flight. Specifically, Ball developed platforms for glucose biosensors that astronauts will ingest or will have implanted subcutaneously to allow for remote monitoring of an individual's vital signs. Commercial or government internships are another integral component of an IGERT fellow's program, strengthening bonds between UK and industry.

The program's goal to develop sensing systems with commercial applications is exemplified by another project, based in Bhattacharyya's laboratory, that is gaining industrial attention. IGERT fellows Stephen Ritchie and Jamie Hestekin are researching microfiltration membranes to which polymers can be attached. These polymers can recognize and separate heavy metals out of water. The concept of microfiltration isn?t new, but the polymers add a new twist.

"These membranes work as good particle filters, just like a coffee filter," says Ritchie, a fourth-year Ph.D. student. "It's a smart membrane—it can actually remove all these metals, too—so it has two purposes and it works really well."

The membranes could be attached to a kitchen faucet or be utilized in industrial endeavors. Both semi-conductor and plating production processes require large quantities of rinse water that could someday be treated by the membranes for recovery of heavy metals; and the resulting pure water could be recycled back into the system.

"The students are the asset," Bhattacharyya says. "They put us in the forefront of research and bring recognition to the university. With IGERT making the interactions possible, we're bringing in new areas of research which otherwise might not be possible," he says.

The program gains momentum as it passes its first anniversary. Bachas plans to initiate a program that will provide students with a certificate for their work in joint disciplines and will open doors for more students to obtain credit for multidisciplinary studies affiliated with the IGERT program.