Two Western chemistry professors each received a $40,000 award to fund research toward their work modifying proteins and developing tools for solar energy conversion.
The Cottrell College Science Award from Research Corporation of Science Advancement gave 33 grants to universities nationwide. Western tied for the most recipients this year, and has won 23 of these awards since 1994.
Chemistry professor Robert Berger will be using the funds to develop a new computation method to predict electronic properties of metals, plastics and glass to be used for solar energy conversion, Berger said in an email.
This could lead to breakthroughs for materials such as batteries that would create electricity from sun or heat. Berger said he is excited about the project because it addresses the question of what kind of materials could be useful for solar energy conversion.
“There are a lot of smart people trying to answer that question and it won’t be answered all at once,” Berger said. “I think the research that this grant allows us to do will make an important contribution.”
Berger said the award has been one of the most sought -after grants for new faculty in undergraduate chemistry and physics departments.
There will be three or four Western students with backgrounds in chemistry, physics and math also involved in Berger’s project.
“They all bring different perspectives,” Berger said. “Often, they have ideas I would never have come up with.”
Chemistry professor John Antos was another recipient from Western and will be using his award to develop new tools to modify proteins.The research could advance the effectiveness of pharmaceutical drugs.
“The question we have been going after is what happens when you take natural protein structures and modify them in a way that nature can’t,” Antos said. “If you do that, can you create proteins with new and useful properties that nature didn’t intend?”
Antos said the payoff could be huge and the research could be used for new tools to understand biological phenomena.
“I would love for the technologies and tools we develop to be so useful and valuable that they are taken up by researchers across the country,” Antos said. “We really want to enable great science.”
Antos added that the research is a great opportunity for training young scientists. He said getting undergraduate and master’s students to work on these projects is a phenomenal way to train and expose them to research science.
Graduate student Keyvan Nikghalb has been working with Antos for more than a year and said the award is a fantastic opportunity to explore new ideas as well as fund new equipment that will make lab work more efficient.
“The research project has a lot of potential for growth,” Nikghalb said. “I think we are going to see some exciting work done in this lab in the next few years.”
The Cotrell College Science Award supports research programs conducted by early career faculty and their students at primarily undergraduate institutions, media contact for Research Corporation Science Advancement Dan Huff said in an email.
The awards have funded research for more than 1,500 scientists in 400 institutions since 1994, according to a Research Corporation of Science Advancement press release.
Western physics professor Seth Rittenhouse also received an award, according to the corporation’s website.