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Three chemistry professors receive prestigious NSF grants

Three chemistry professors at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire currently hold grants from the National Science Foundation's Research in Undergraduate Institutions program.

Dr. Stephen Drucker has received a $228,693 grant in support of his ongoing research project titled "Spectroscopic and Computational Studies of Alpha, Beta-Unsaturated Carbonyl Compounds in Triplet Excited States." Dr. Jim Phillips' $227,330 grant supports his project titled "Continued Studies of Condensed-Phase Structural Effects in Complexes of BC13 and Group IV Lewis Acids." Dr. Kurt Wiegel holds a $200,000 grant for his project titled "Thermoreversible hydrogen bonding in mesophase formation: Enhancing stability and formation."

"To have three independent NSF-funded research programs ongoing in the chemistry department at the same time speaks to the high quality of the cutting-edge research being conducted by our faculty and students," said Dr. Warren Gallagher, chair of the UW-Eau Claire chemistry department. "It is our ability to offer these types of opportunities within an undergraduate liberal arts setting that makes our students highly competitive for top-notch graduate programs and employment situations upon graduation." 

Drucker said he and his research team focus on improving their understanding of photochemical reactions. 

"These reactions use energy from the sun or other light sources to disrupt, or weaken, the chemical bonds that hold the atoms together in a molecule," Drucker said. "In this state, the molecule is more susceptible to chemical reaction. To gain insight about photochemistry, we use an experimental technique known as laser absorption spectroscopy. In the experiment we fill a metal tube with a sample of gas molecules. The tube has transparent windows on the ends. We shine a laser beam through the tube and measure precisely which wavelengths, or colors, of light are absorbed by the molecules. We analyze the data using well-developed mathematical models and ultimately learn how extensively the laser light weakens the molecular bonds. Such information ultimately allows chemists to devise increasingly efficient photochemical routes for obtaining desired products." 

The award period runs from Aug. 1, 2014, to July 31, 2017. Drucker said funding from the new grant will allow the team to record absorption spectra of acrolein (C3H4O), a small molecule that serves as a prototype for understanding the photochemistry of larger analogous systems. 

The grant will support up to five student researchers during each year of the grant project. Students currently working with Drucker on his research are Michael McDonnell, Spring Valley; and Charles Lindberg, Frederic. 

Drucker said former students involved with the project have pursued PhDs in chemistry, biochemistry, physics and mathematics, while others have launched industrial careers in food science and medical devices.

Phillips said his research deals with complexes — associations of two or more molecules — with his team seeking those that undergo major changes in structure and bonding when their environment changes.

"Some of the systems we study are so sensitive that even frozen noble gas environments cause significant structural changes," Phillips said. "This is unusual. While the bonds in almost every substance are not greatly affected by changes in physical state, our compounds are different."

Phillips said his team measures these changes in structure using a technique called spectroscopy.

"This measures the frequencies at which bonds vibrate, essentially their pitch," Phillips said. "As these pitches change we are able to assess the degree to which the structure changes across various environments. What's unique is that we collect these data in solid noble gases at very low temperatures, just a bit above absolute zero."

Phillips' RUI grant period runs from July 1, 2012, to June 30, 2015. He said his most recent grant has allowed his research team to identify systems with the basic workings of any nanotechnology device.

"We have identified a class of molecules for which their inner workings (a specific bond) can be manipulated from the outside world via some stimulus, such as an electric current, which is the key operational feature of any nanotechnology device," Phillips said. 

Students working with Phillips on his research project are Nick Hora, Cedarburg; John Lanska, Tomah; Anna Waller, White Bear Lake, Minnesota; Nikki Weiss, Altoona; and Maggie Phillips, an Eau Claire Memorial High School senior enrolled in Chemistry 399 through the high school Youth Options program. 

Phillips said while he and his team are conducting cutting-edge research that will ultimately benefit society, the opportunities research provides for student development are equally as important.

"Students are given an opportunity to earn money while learning to be actual practitioners in their field," Phillips said. "Not only are they training on techniques in the lab, they are making off-campus presentations at professional meetings and are publishing in top-quality journals. UW-Eau Claire consistently ranks toward the top among UW System schools in the number of students co-authoring on publications and giving presentations. These opportunities are incredibly unusual for undergraduates in the sciences." 

Wiegel said his research seeks ways to develop new liquid crystalline molecules or adapt existing molecules to give them new properties. 

"Liquid crystals run almost all interactive display devices like tablets and cellphones," Wiegel said. "They give those products the ability to tune in color and light, and they affect how well the products function at extreme temperatures. The biggest problem with these displays is that they are very fragile. Dropping them will cause a fracture and make them inoperable, and there are a lot of temperature issues as well. Our research is centered on fixing a lot of these issues so these devices can work over larger temperature ranges and ultimately self-heal, so that a crack in the display material itself can repair over time." 

The project period for Wiegel's RUI grant is 2014-16. Students currently working on the project with Wiegel are Evan Bornowski, Green Bay; Ethan Fuhrman, Mound, Minnesota; Michael Heltne, Elk Mound; Eric John, Grafton; and Seth Legare, Appleton.

Caption for top photo: Dr. Stephen Drucker, UW-Eau Claire professor of chemistry, works on research related to photochemical reactions with student Michael McDonnell, Spring Valley.