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External Grants Fund UW-Eau Claire Chemistry Research with Potentially Far-Reaching Applications

RELEASED: July 2, 2008

EAU CLAIRE — In the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire chemistry department, recent external grants totaling nearly $400,000 are funding faculty/student research that could contribute to the development of better computer monitors, more effective antibiotics and improved cleanup of toxic waste sites.

Dr. Kurt Wiegel Dr. Sanchita Hati Dr. Scott Hartsel
Dr. Kurt Wiegel
Dr. Sanchita Hati
Dr. Scott Hartsel

Dr. Kurt Wiegel, assistant professor of chemistry, has received a $180,000 National Science Foundation grant; Dr. Sanchita Hati, assistant professor of chemistry, has received a $184,205 Academic Research Enhancement Award from the National Institutes of Health; and Dr. Scott Hartsel, professor and chair of the chemistry department, has received a $34,500 Research Corp. grant.

These most recent awards add to an already impressive track record for the department in terms of grant monies received, said Hartsel, who noted that in the past five years UW-Eau Claire's chemistry faculty has brought in more than $4.6 million in external grant funding.

That two of UW-Eau Claire's younger chemistry faculty members have received such large grants is noteworthy, Hartsel said.

"The funding rate for NIH grants is lower than 10 percent, and the fact that Dr. Hati received this highly competitive grant after just her first proposal is remarkable," he said. "We also are excited because Dr. Wiegel's grant is the first external grant that will directly benefit the important work of UW-Eau Claire's Material Science Center."

Wiegel will use the NSF funds to support research seeking ways to develop new liquid crystalline molecules or adapt existing molecules to give them new properties. Liquid crystals — used widely in today's electronic products such as computer monitors, cell phone displays and watches — give those products the ability to tune in color and light, and they affect how well the products function at extreme temperatures, Wiegel said.

The liquid crystal research project is one to which students readily relate given its application to everyday life, Wiegel said. One goal of the research is to help improve the performance of liquid-crystal displays in very hot and very cold conditions.

"The bottom line is, it's really fun science," he said.

The NSF grant will pay salaries for Wiegel and three student assistants over three summers, as well as travel expenses for the researchers to attend national conferences where they will present their findings.

Wiegel stressed the value of the national conference experience for undergraduate student researchers.

"They're exposed to a much broader group of scientists talking about what they do, and it exposes them to areas of research they've never seen before," he said, adding that the students also gain confidence as they communicate their findings to other scientists.

Hati's three-year NIH grant will be used to purchase a phosphorimager (a quantitative imaging device) and pay summer salaries for her and three student research assistants as they study a family of enzymes, aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases, or ARSs, that play an important role in protein synthesis in all living systems.

Hati and her team are investigating the communication between domains in ARSs using computational and experimental methods. Understanding the molecular mechanism of domain-domain communications could lead to the development of new generations of drug molecules to fight pathogenic ARSs, Hati said.

"This research is very relevant for antibiotics development," she said. "We have to understand the function of these key enzymes at the molecular level to effectively target disease-causing pathogens."

Brianne Shane, Colfax, a May UW-Eau Claire chemistry graduate, said her experience working in Hati's lab this summer will be beneficial when she begins graduate studies in biochemistry this fall at The Ohio State University.

"I'm learning many different techniques that are applied in a biochemistry and molecular biology lab to study complicated biological processes," said Shane, who hopes to pursue a career in the pharmaceutical industry. "Doing research in Dr. Hati's lab has also developed my problem-solving skills, since I have to figure out how I'm going to conduct an experiment so that it works and I can obtain results. Since starting in Dr. Hati's lab I have definitely fine-tuned my lab skills, and this will be a great asset when I start graduate school."

Kurt Zimmerman, a senior biochemistry and molecular biology major from Westboro, also appreciates the opportunities provided through assisting in Hati's research.

"Not only will this experience aid me in laboratory techniques, but it will also give me greater insight into the intricacies of becoming a published author," said Zimmerman, whose long-term goals include graduate studies in molecular and cellular biology and a career in cancer research.

Hartsel's Research Corp. grant will support ongoing chemistry department research of a molecule Hartsel described as the "strongest copper-bonding agent known to man."

Methanobactin, the copper-harvesting molecule, is found in bacteria that eat methane and could potentially be beneficial in the cleanup of toxic waste sites or in helping to rejuvenate areas of the oceans where a lack of metals has limited the growth of various life forms, Hartsel said.

Along with the scientist who discovered the molecule, Dr. Alan DiSpirito of Iowa State University, methanobactin is being studied collaboratively by several UW-Eau Claire chemistry faculty members, including Hartsel, Dr. Warren Gallagher, Dr. Marcus McEllistrem and Dr. Sudeep Bhattacharyay, as well as students in upper-level chemistry lab classes.

"We are probably the top group in the country looking at this," Hartsel said. "It's a great way of combining the research aspect of chemistry with what goes on in the classroom."



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