Balancing the Equation
NSF grant cements chemistry professor as a rising star in both lab and classroom
Friday, December 18, 2020
Christina Cooley inside of the Chemistry department's Cooley Lab

At Trinity, faculty don’t have to choose between working closely with undergraduates and conducting top-notch research, says chemistry professor Christina Cooley.

Now, armed with a $403,322 National Science Foundation grant—containing funding both for her existing research projects and for curricular priorities—Cooley has the proof.

“Trinity was my dream job because I wanted to do great research, but also great teaching. And this award absolutely speaks to that,” Cooley says. “There are times where it seems impossible for faculty ‘do it all’ at a high level. But then, to get this grant, it’s incredibly validating to know you don’t have to drop everything and put research on a pedestal—you can still do amazing research while also prioritizing relationships with your students.”

The award, a continuing grant from the NSF’s Faculty Early Career Development Program, starts in August 2021 and lasts for five years. Funding in the grant will support Cooley’s ongoing fluorogenic polymerization project, which aims to use light as an indicator for disease, potentially having a monumental impact in the fight to diagnose diseases in areas of the world where advanced imaging equipment might not be available.

Cooley is the fifth Trinity professor to win this grant since its inception in 1995. Bert Chandler and Adam Urbach (Chemistry), Niescja Turner (Physics and Astronomy) and Kathleen Surpless (Geosciences) are the other four.

“It’s significant for faculty at undergraduate institutions to win these, because the majority of awardees are professors at R1 institutions with large research programs,” Cooley says. “I’m super excited about this as it opens so many doors and will hopefully lead to further research and collaboration opportunities.”

This award will also help Cooley continue to open doors for students. The educational component of the grant will task Cooley with redesigning an organic chemistry lab course at Trinity, as the chemistry department seeks to incorporate more problem-solving into lab courses. “We were going to use this course as a model for how we might re-design Trinity’s entire undergraduate chemistry lab curriculum by integrating material from ‘different angles,’” Cooley says. 

The grant also marks a major milestone for another one of Cooley’s passions: Providing funding for a Trinity Women in Science and Technology outreach program called stEMPOWER that pairs Trinity students with local elementary schools to create interest in STEM fields through hands-on afterschool activities.

“This has been on pause because of the pandemic, but we’re developing ways to develop curriculum remotely. And what’s exciting now is that there’s finally money in the budget for supplies that support the stEMPOWER program.”

During a year where COVID-19 has also affected Cooley’s research (shutting down her lab over a crucial stretch of time following spring break in 2020), she says “it’s tough to see things derailed and slowed down.”

But with this grant on the horizon, Cooley still has a bright future to look forward to, both in the lab and the classroom.

“This means stability for the lab over the next five years, which is huge,” Cooley says. “There aren’t many things we’ve been excited about this year, but this is absolutely one of them.”


Jeremiah Gerlach is the brand journalist for Trinity University Strategic Communications and Marketing.

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