Down the halls of Trinity University’s Center for the Sciences and Innovation (CSI) and Marrs McLean Hall (MMS), science is on display. Through sunlit, glass-walled laboratories, passers-by see students and faculty diligently working together with state-of-the-art equipment and digital technology. Underlying much of this work? Substantial support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that fuels collaborative research.
In the Department of Chemistry, chemistry professor Christina Cooley, Ph.D., continues work through the NSF’s Faculty Early Career Development Program, armed with more than $400,000 for existing research and for curricular priorities. Funding supports 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.
“There are times where it seems impossible for faculty to ‘do it all’ at a high level,” Cooley says. “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.”
Students review data in Bert Chandler's chemistry lab.
NSF grant funding also still fuels the lab of retired chemistry professor Bert Chandler, Ph.D., where undergraduates work alongside graduate assistants and post-docs to understand fundamental chemistry for industrially important model reactions involved in energy conversion, storage, and chemical production.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have constant NSF support for the past 15 plus years, which is in large part a testament to the students and postdocs who have worked with me,” Chandler says. “It is really tough to sustain this kind scientific work, especially working primarily with undergraduates who are constantly moving along the learning curve. We have had to develop methods that are robust enough to allow new students to contribute quickly. This has meant we can spend a little more time collecting the kinds of reactivity data many research groups aren’t interested in doing.”
Down the corridor of CSI and across the bridge to MMS, mathematics professor Hoa Nguyen, Ph.D., is collaborating with UC Berkeley biology professor Mimi Koehl, Ph.D., and Tulane University mathematics professor Lisa Fauci, Ph.D., to study cell morphologies. This project and several others on bacterial chemotaxis and collective motion have been conducted with the aid of 12 Trinity students, six of whom are fully supported by the grant.
“Thanks to the NSF grant, I was able to provide stipends to female and first-generation students, who are underrepresented in STEM,” Nguyen says. “The grant has had a significant impact on educating our undergraduates and supporting faculty and student interdisciplinary research activities.”
One floor up, the Department of Geosciences is part of the Keck Geology Consortium. There, Benjamin Surpless, Ph.D., is using an NSF grant to support research of fault zones and coupled fold-fracture evolution. The series of grants, totaling more than $490,000, has allowed Surpless to involve a significant number of undergraduates in his investigations, including on field trips to southern Utah and West Texas.
Surpless and his team collect field data by flying unmanned aerial vehicle technology—you and I know them as ‘drones’—armed with high-tech cameras across major fault zones. “With drones, you can get at data that you couldn’t possibly get at without the additional step of climbing rocks,” Surpless says. “We can take what we’ve learned, and through data and analysis, we can apply it to a number of different fields: natural hazards such as earthquakes, the impact on groundwater flow, gas and oil recovery, and geothermal energy systems.”
Additionally, geosciences professor Daniel Lehrmann, Ph.D., is using an NSF grant to conduct collaborative research with the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay to understand the conditions of water-rock interaction. Lerhmann’s work has brought him and a team of Trinity undergraduate researchers to the Nanpanjiang Basin of South China to study carbonate rocks, and while the coronavirus pandemic halted travel to China for the last two summers, the team hopes to restart on-site research in Summer 2022.
“The most important thing about study abroad is that it opens the students’ minds to see that the world is different in other places and that the culture is different,” Lehrmann told San Antonio Magazine of his fourth research trip to China. “It’s not a vacation—that’s one thing I try to let students know right away. China still has a lot of opportunities for discovery.”
And on the top floor of MMS, physics professor Jennifer Steele, Ph.D., is seeing the big picture through nanotechnology—miniscule structures that scientists can engineer to study and solve microscopic problems. Steele’s lab is currently studying fluorescence resonance energy transfer (FRET), a technique that scientists can use to measure the relative distance between microscopic molecules—such as the proteins in our cells—that are mere nanometers or ångströms apart.
An NSF grant has funded new equipment and eight summer stipends for Trinity undergraduates in Steele’s lab. “We’re looking at a problem that needs a new tool,” Steele says, “and we are designing a structure that will give us a better understanding of the problem and the solution.”