Creating learning opportunities from research grants

Professor Matthew EvansProfessor Matthew Evans and four Wheaton students will spend the next three summers above the Arctic Circle seeking to better understand how the melting of Greenland’s glaciers will contribute to rising sea levels.

“The big question is how the Disko Bay system has responded to temperature changes in the recent past,” Professor Evans said. “The hope is that we can better predict how warming will impact the system in the future. It’s an important system, with one of the fastest-advancing and iceberg-producing glaciers on Earth.”

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded a $139,104 grant to Evans for the research effort, which will also take the Wheaton team to the National Ice Core Lab in Denver, Colo., to analyze the 100-meter ice cores they will collect in Greenland.

GreenlandEvans is one of two Wheaton professors whose research plans have recently won substantial grants that include funding to hire current students as research assistants. Assistant Professor of Chemistry Thandi Buthelezi won a three-year $94,000 grant to support research that could aid in the development of nanotechnology tools useful in medicine, computing and other applications.

The role of faculty research in creating learning opportunities for Wheaton students is a tradition at the college. The experience of engaging in an intensive research project is uniquely powerful, faculty members say.

“Most of my research students develop strong analytical chemistry skills, along with developing an ability to think independently, and outside of their comfort zone,” said Evans, an assistant professor of chemistry and geology. “These are certainly skills necessary for successful graduate study, and they also will help in the workforce.”

In fact, a professor’s choices about the direction of her research are often influenced by the extent to which it allows for the involvement of undergraduates.

“I have been working on the spiropyran research project since fall 2008 when I started my position at Wheaton,” said Buthelezi, who noted that the research question captured her scholarly attention as well as offered opportunities for student involvement. “I became intrigued with the ability of spiropyrans to change from colorless to colored molecules in response to light or heat.”

It is basic research with potentially big potential for real-world applications. Spiropyrans could be used in a variety of ways from transition eye lenses to optical switches for molecular computers. First, however, researchers must understand how to control their inherent instability, which is where Professor Buthelezi’s team will apply its energies.

The Wheaton research team will conduct a range of experiments to examine the behavior of these molecules under varying conditions of light and heat. Their work will use a sophisticated instrument, the nanosecond pulsed laser/detection system, which the college acquired through a previous NSF grant that Buthelezi and her colleagues in the chemistry and physics departments received in 2011.

Her new grant will provide training in the use of the nanosecond laser/detection system and a variety of instruments, not only to research assistants but also to students enrolled in the college’s quantum chemistry course. The benefits, however, go beyond learning specific lab skills.

“I hope that my students will get experience in solving technological design problems,” Professor Buthelezi said. “They will be trained to think critically about designing experiments that will provide new data and shed light on the answers to an experimental question.”

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