Federal Stimulus Dollars fund University Research
Projects create jobs; studies range from cell proteins to power grids
University of Arkansas researchers have been awarded more than $9 million in federal funding for the fiscal years 2009 and 2010 through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The “stimulus funds” were primarily intended to provide a short-term boost to the American economy by creating or preserving jobs and improving the nation’s infrastructure. University researchers say their ARRA grants, mainly from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, did create jobs. However they expect the real impact of these grants will be felt in the results of their research in a broad range of areas.
Several of these projects target the causes and ultimately treatment or cures for serious diseases.
Paul Adams, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, received a $108,000 grant to study mutant proteins involved in cell growth regulation that may play a role in cancer.
“One of the hallmarks of cancer cells is that they do not turn off; they keep growing,” said Adams. “Our goal is to understand the molecular details of this activity so that we can find ways to eradicate this behavior.”
Adam’s research concentrates on a specific member of the Ras family of proteins. His lab will learn more about how this protein works by engineering chemical differences in different parts of the protein. Ultimately, researchers will use this information to help design drugs that target this particular protein.
In terms of job creation, Adams’ grant has allowed him to hire a second postdoctoral associate and a master’s level laboratory assistant in the near future.
A protein found in the influenza virus is the subject of research being done by five university scientists. Frank Millett, director of the university’s Center for Protein Structure and Function, is working with Suresh Kumar, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry and his colleagues in biological sciences, assistant professors Yu-Chun Du and Robyn Goforth and professor Ralph Henry. The team is working to develop antiviral drugs that can be used to treat influenza and prevent it from spreading. To do that they first need to understand the way the influenza virus infection works on a molecular level. This involves intensive study of a specific protein related to the virus, NS1, first, to learn how it infects and disrupts healthy cells. The next step is developing a three-dimensional “picture” of the protein’s structure to find ways to inhibit it.
The $855,000, two-year grant enabled the researchers to employ two full-time technicians and five graduate students; it also paid half the salaries of two senior researchers.
Jeanine Durdik, professor of biological sciences received a $142,000 grant to continue her work on ways to make vaccines more effective for elderly people.
“Once we reach 50 years old or beyond, our immune systems are not as effective as they were in our youth,” she explained. “We are looking for drugs that we can add to a vaccine to boost its effectiveness in preventing a disease as people get older.”
The grant enabled Durdik to employ a post-doctoral student on a half-time basis.
Burt Bluhm, assistant professor of plant pathology is also looking for a way to fight disease, but in his case his $500,000 ARRA grant funds research into a common and widespread fungal disease that attacks corn crops. As with the protein research projects, Bluhm is looking at the way the fungus works on a molecular level, with the long term goal of finding ways to block it. The research could save farmers millions of dollars by giving them new strategies to manage the disease.
The stimulus funds are paying the full-time salaries of a post-doctoral researcher and a graduate student, as well as the hourly wages of two part-time undergraduate assistants for a three-year period.
Moving from the molecular to the macro scale, two of the university research projects address energy conservation and efficiency.
Alan Mantooth, professor of electrical engineering, is principle investigator for two NSF grants totaling $783,000 that established the GRid-connected Advanced Power Electronic Systems (GRAPES). The center is a partnership with the University of South Carolina and 16 companies ranging from electrical utilities to equipment manufacturing firms. The member companies each contribute $40,000 a year to the center, nearly doubling the research funds available in the first year alone. Researchers are using those funds to investigate ways to improve the efficiency, economy and reliability of the nation’s electric power grid. They are developing, testing and implementing elements of what is known as the “smart grid,” which includes new devices to help prevent blackouts and integrate electricity from such renewable sources as wind and solar energy. Only one job was directly created by the project, but the “seed money” provided to start this center of excellence will provide a long-term economic benefit for consumers, in the form of cheaper, cleaner and more dependable electric energy.
An energy-related project in applied research is being funded by a $773,000 federal grant provided through the Arkansas Energy Office. Darin Nutter, associate professor of mechanical engineering, working with the Energy Office and Arkansas Manufacturing Solutions, created the Arkansas Industrial Energy Clearinghouse, designed to help Arkansas industry save energy. The Clearinghouse, which includes a website, brings together and will continually update the most current information about energy conservation and make that information instantly available to all industries in Arkansas. State industries can contact the Clearinghouse directly for free advice, assistance, and technical resources. Companies can also use the website for guidance on how to conduct their own energy assessments and find answers to specific technical questions.
“The Clearinghouse should lead to significant energy savings and greenhouse gas reductions,” said Nutter. “It should also increase the competitive advantage of the manufacturing base in Arkansas.”
One full-time staff engineer has been hired to run the day-to-day operations of the Clearinghouse.
In addition to research projects taking place in Arkansas, some of the stimulus money has funded projects outside the United States. Brady Cox, assistant professor of civil engineering, received a $177,000 ARRA grant through the NSF to study the 8.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Pisco, Peru in Aug., 2007, killing more than 400 people. Cox and his multinational, multidisciplinary team will add to information already gathered in the aftermath of the earthquake.
They will use a combination of satellite imaging, state of the art remote sensing equipment, seismic surface wave testing and on-site “boots on the ground” observation to create a comprehensive, searchable archive detailing the effects of the earthquake on a 1,000-square kilometer area. This region varies from coastal plains to a mountain range, and the earthquake effects included everything from soil liquefaction to massive avalanches. The multinational project will provide extensive information for future researchers, but it also will be useful for the general public and policy makers world-wide, helping them understand how to plan for an earthquake in order to limit damage and save lives.
The stimulus grant also pays for the creation of two graduate research assistant positions during the study, enabling the graduate students to work while completing their master’s degrees.
In northern Thailand researchers are using a $150,000 grant to study mushrooms and other fungi in a project directed by Steve Stephenson, research professor in biological sciences.
“There is no question that fungi are immensely important in the functioning and maintenance of ecological processes in nature, but our knowledge of their biodiversity is far from being complete,” said Stephenson. “Tropical forests are thought to have the greatest variety of fungi, but a major portion of this biodiversity has yet to be documented. Our purpose is to develop a more complete understanding of the role that fungi play in tropical forest ecosystems, to help better understand our entire earth ecosystem.”
The project creates knowledge, rather than jobs, although the grant will pay for at least four student researchers, undergraduate or graduate, to spend a month in Thailand carrying out biodiversity studies of fungi and fungus-like organisms for each of three summers.
“This is an extraordinary opportunity for the students,” said Stephenson. “They will be doing joint field work at study sites in northern Thailand, sharing the same accommodations as their student counterparts from Thai universities, and working together in the lab to process and analyze their samples and data.”
Another two stimulus grants will provide students with research experience, but on the Fayetteville campus.
One of the grants, $274,000 over three years, will provide funding for the NSF’s Research Experience for Undergraduates. The program, administered by Julia Kennefick, assistant professor of physics, brings 10-12 students to the university’s Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences for an intensive 10-week research program. The students receive stipends that allow them to conduct research in such areas as astronomy, astrobiology, planetary geology, and instrument and mission design.
Another grant, $656,000 for two years, is stimulus money distributed through the National Institute of Health’s Center of Biomedical Research Excellence, and administered by Frank Millett, Distinguished Professor of chemistry and biochemistry. The grant brings undergraduate students and science teachers from both high school and small colleges to the university’s Center for Protein Structure and Function. The students and teachers will get experience working on one of five research projects being conducted at the center, while furthering the center’s study of the structure and function of biomedically important proteins.
In 2009 the grant provided 30 summer jobs for undergraduate students, two for college teachers and one for a high school teacher; in 2010 another 43 summer jobs have been created for undergraduate students and 7 for college and high school teachers.
Two additional grants were awarded to Andrew Raich and Phil Harrington, assistant professors of mathematics, for what can be considered “pure” research related to a particular type of mathematical equation.
Raich received a $96,000 grant to investigate the regularity theory of tangential Cauchy-Riemann equations. Harrington is using his $85,000 grant to study boundary value problems related to the Cauchy-Riemann equations on non-smooth domains. Although this research may sound abstract, mathematics is fundamental to science and even obscure mathematical discoveries have a history of leading to breakthroughs in “mainstream” science in unpredictable ways.
“The breadth and depth of the research being conducted by University of Arkansas faculty never fails to impress me,” said Sharon Gaber, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. “The fact that so many students are also involved is a mark of the quality of the education they are receiving. Most of the attention the federal stimulus program has received has focused on the short-term impact on the economy. However, the government was wise to take a long-term approach as well and add significant new funding for scientific research. The work being done here, and at other universities, will not only provide a foundation for the future growth of this country but it will also improve the lives of people all over the world.”