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RCSA Announces Five 2016 SEED Awards for Cottrell Scholars

Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA), one of America’s oldest private philanthropies, announces the 2016 SEED – Singular Exceptional Endeavors of Discovery -- Awards for outstanding Cottrell Scholars.

This year’s SEED recipients include: Stacey F. Bent, chemical engineering, Stanford University; Bert D. Chandler, chemistry, Trinity University; Martin Gruebele, chemistry, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Teri W. Odom, chemistry, Northwestern University; and Charles Sykes, chemistry, Tufts University.

“SEED awards offer the opportunity to start new promising activities and test new out-of-the-box ideas,” according to RCSA Senior Program Director Silvia Ronco. She notes that risky, interdisciplinary and exploratory projects are strongly encouraged, and no preliminary data are required when applying. Award size is $50,000 for research projects, or $25,000 for educational activities.

The SEED Award is one of four categories of career awards available within RCSA’s Cottrell Scholar program, Ronco noted. Created in 1994, the Cottrell Scholar program develops outstanding teacher-scholars at American research universities and primarily undergraduate institutions who are recognized by their scientific communities for the quality and innovation of their research programs and their academic leadership skills. There are currently 365 Cottrell Scholars in the United States.

This year’s SEED Award winners, and their projects:

Stacey F. Bent, chemical engineering, Stanford University

Developing Tunable, Hybrid MoS2-Based Catalysts

Catalysts are used to accelerate many chemical reactions. Stacey F. Bent, chemical engineering, Stanford University, has received a SEED Award from Research Corporation for Science Advancement to experiment with nanostructuring a molybdenum disulfide catalyst (MoS2) used in splitting water molecules to produce hydrogen. In other words, she will attempt to package MoS2 in extremely tiny particles with more chemically active edges than are found in other forms of MoS2. Bent plans on using advanced techniques – atomic layer deposition and molecular layer deposition -- to synthesize the nanoparticles and embed them in thin films. She hopes to include additional molecules as “spacers,” which can be changed in length and chemical character to adjust the effectiveness of the MoSregions. If successful her work could yield new classes of hybrid catalysts with properties that are “tunable” for specific chemical reactions. “We are excited to explore whether these synthesis methods borrowed from the semiconductor industry—atomic and molecular layer deposition—can be used to make improved catalysts,” Bent said.

Bert D. Chandler, chemistry. Trinity University

Metalloenzyme-Inspired Heterogeneous C-H Activation Catalysts

America has abundant natural gas supplies, but processing this form of hydrocarbon into feedstock for chemicals and fuels requires extremely high temperatures, which is energy inefficient. Bert D. Chandler, chemistry, Trinity University, has received a SEED Award from Research Corporation for Science Advancement to explore tower processes for converting natural gas into chemical feedstocks.  His innovative plan draws its inspiration from nature's enzymes, which use metal ions to break down the chemical bonds in methane.  He plans to apply the fundamental chemistry of nature's systems to solid phase catalysts, which are more robust than natural enzymes. This could drastically lower the temperatures required to activate methane by encouraging the gentle oxidation of C-H bonds at only moderate temperatures. “This new and largely untested strategy has the potential to allow us to use cheaper, cleaner natural gas supplies as feedstocks for chemicals and fuels.” Chandler says. "We're very fortunate that Research Corporation funds a program that allows us to work on really new ideas such as this." 

Martin Gruebele, chemistry, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Revealing Whole-Cell Diffusion and Reaction Using Fluorescence Correlation Anti Correlation Microscopy

One of the great challenges for cell biology over the next few decades is coming up with a complete picture of what goes on at the molecular level inside a living cell. In pursuit of this vital goal, Research Corporation for Science Advancement, through its Cottrell Scholar SEED Award program, is funding high-risk, potentially high-reward research by Martin Gruebele, chemistry, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Gruebele is attempting to develop a new, superfast microscopy technique based on two existing techniques. Advanced microscopy methods can reveal relatively slow processes going on inside the cell at fairly high resolution and cell-wide; on the other hand, a technique known as fluorescence correlation spectroscopy can reveal fast processes-- occurring in milliseconds -- that are localized to very small regions in the cell. This latter technique makes use of a “confocal’ approach that only focuses on various depths within the cell one level at a time. Gruebele is hoping to develop a new combination of these techniques called, Fluorescence Correlation-Anticorrelation Microscopy (FCAM) to view the whole cell at once as its molecules move around and perform their work. If he is successful, Grubele’s FCAM would allow scientists to move from static images to real-time movies, and to make precise, detailed studies of how the whole cell signals and responds to stress, an avenue of investigation not currently available.

Teri W. Odom, chemistry, Northwestern University

How Viral Shape Can Inspire the Design of Optical Nanoprobes for Investigating Nanoparticle-Cell Interactions

To cause an infection a virus must first get past a cell membrane and then use the host cell’s own mechanisms to replicate. Thus, this first virus-cell interaction at the nanoscale ultimately holds the key to infection. Teri W. Odom, chemistry, Northwestern University, has received a SEED Award from Research Corporation for Science Advancement to develop optical nanoprobes that can reveal particle-cell interactions in real time and at the single-particle level. These types of nanoscale structural interactions are very heard to visualize -- and in real time -- because of (1) the small length scales involved and (2) there is little contrast between a virus particle and a cell membrane. Her innovative research project calls for the development of gold “nanostars,” extremely tiny particles with branching “arms” that mimic the shapes of viruses, and then tracking their interactions on live cell membranes using a multi-channel differential interference contrast microscope. The instrument bounces separate beams of polarized light off the object under examination, and then recombines the beams into a single 3D image.  Odom’s lab is currently one of the few in the world that can observe the interaction of irregular-shaped nanoparticles and cell membranes.

Charles Sykes, chemistry, Tufts University

Harnessing Low Energy Electrons for Localized DNA Damage Based Cancer Therapy

Using radiation to smash cancer cells – more specifically the DNA inside cancer cells -- is a long-standing technique. But because radiation can damage healthy cells as well as cancerous ones, the search is ongoing for better ways to perform this therapy. Research Corporation for Science Advancement recently presented Charles Sykes, chemistry, Tufts University, with a SEED Award to create an abundant source of low-energy electrons that researchers hope will do less damage to healthy cells while better targeting cancer cells. Sykes notes that only very recently has the ability of low-energy electrons (in the 3–20 eV range) to induce chemical reactions and biological damage begun to be appreciated. Sykes and his colleagues are hoping to use these electrons, which can travel only a few nanometers from their targets before losing power, to slice into, or “cleave,” cancer cells’ DNA strands. The researchers will coat gold nanoparticles with radioactive iodine (125-I) to produce the energized electrons, and then determine their ability to kill cells. They will use the award money to perform preliminary tests on standard laboratory HeLa cells to demonstrate the feasibility of this approach, in hopes of attracting more funding to perfect the technique for cancer treatments.



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