University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

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UW-Eau Claire Shares in Grant
For Laser-Based Research

 MAILED:  Sept. 15, 2004

EAU CLAIRE — The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire's national reputation for undergraduate research in chemistry took another step forward with the news of an unusual shared grant from the National Science Foundation.

UW-Eau Claire is one of four undergraduate research programs that will share a transportable pulsed laser system, purchased with a $241,663 NSF grant. The other participating schools are Hope, Kalamazoo and Calvin colleges in Michigan, with technical support and maintenance coordinated by scientists at Purdue University.

"As far as I know, this is a unique model for undergraduate research in chemistry," said UW-Eau Claire physical chemist Stephen Drucker, who authored the grant. "The reviewers liked the novel approach, and I think this is the reason our proposal was funded. It's a model that widens the base of resources available to undergraduate research programs like ours and links us with a large research institution that has specialized support personnel."

Drucker credits Purdue physical chemist Timothy Zwier for masterminding the proposal. Zwier began his career at Calvin College, where he involved undergraduates in research.

"Zwier never lost his interest or belief in the value of undergraduate research," Drucker said. "The partnership also creates opportunities for his graduate students to come here and find out about a career path like mine that combines undergraduate teaching and research."

State-of-the-art instrumentation is a challenge for Drucker and other physical chemists at undergraduate institutions. He said it's crucial to support and sustain undergraduate training in laser-based methods, in part because of the range of advanced studies that employ lasers.

"We're trying to get to a state-of-the-art level," Drucker said. "If I can be successful in my lab, it will demonstrate to NSF the value of granting future funds."

The new laser system will reside at each school from three to nine months. During the three-year grant period, the costs for replacing worn or damaged laser components are included in the grant budget. Beyond that time, Drucker and the other principal investigators will contribute to the costs by becoming members of the Purdue Laser Facility.

"We are motivated to use it to its fullest extent during the time it is here," Drucker said. "Careful planning is required to be productive and have publishable results. The long-term goal is to make a case for having additional state-of-the-art laser instrumentation here full time."

Drucker will use the equipment in his research to characterize more precisely the properties of molecules. The kind of experiments he does benefits scientists as they attempt to understand reactive encounters between molecules, providing valuable information to theoreticians trying to predict the outcomes computationally, he said.

The new equipment will supplement the current laser equipment in Drucker's UW-Eau Claire lab, giving him more precise data on how small molecules react to light. It also will stimulate students' opportunities for advanced study and specialized training.

"Students will have the opportunity to see how modern research is conducted in our field," said Drucker, who typically has two student assistants per year. One of his former research students, Nathan Pillsbury, a 2003 graduate, recently entered the Ph.D. program at Purdue and joined Zwier's laser spectroscopy group.

"Pillsbury's path is exactly what I'm hoping for out of this partnership," Drucker said. "He's an example of how undergraduate research experience often inspires students to go on to graduate school in chemistry."

On average, UW-Eau Claire grants 22 chemistry bachelor's degrees a year. About seven of those graduates go to graduate school. UW-Eau Claire ranks 16th among the 793 liberal arts colleges and comprehensive universities in the number of chemistry doctoral recipients by undergraduate origin.

Drucker's grant is from NSF's Major Research Instrumentation program. UW-Eau Claire's extramural research awards have increased by 126 percent since 1999, said Chris Lind, assistant vice chancellor for research and sponsored programs. In 2004, grant awards totaled nearly $2 million, he said.

"These resources bring tremendous value to the university through the advancement of scholarly knowledge, education of undergraduate students, professional/research develop of faculty principal investigators and the enhancement of UW-Eau Claire's reputation vital to efforts to attract top quality faculty and students," Lind said.

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JW/JB

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 Judy Berthiaume, Director
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Updated: September 15, 2004