Chemistry Assistant Professors make waves with $2 million in NSF Grants

Six Western Washington University assistant professors of chemistry have earned $2 million in National Science Foundation grants.

The five grants cover a range of projects including science education, reducing plastic waste, and nanosensor development.

Among the five recipients is Assistant Professor Jeanine Amacher, who was awarded the CAREER Award, a $660,000 grant over a five-year period that includes a critical educational component.

Amacher’s lab is broadly interested in protein-peptide interactions by using biochemistry and structural biology to investigate the chemical and physical interactions between amino acids in a peptide and its protein target. In recent years, the Amacher lab has begun collaborating with Dr. John Antos’ chemistry lab to ask questions about selectivity in bacterial sortases, which are located at the cell surface and attach proteins to the cell wall. The lab aims to develop a deeper understanding on how sortases recognize their target sequences and how selectivity varies amongst organisms.

Amacher plans to continue her work with the biannual Life Sciences Symposium which brings students and faculty for a day of talks by graduate students and postdocs from the Seattle area with the goal to provide near-peer mentoring opportunities to Western students. There will also be sessions for applying to graduate school, applying to work in the industry and a poster session highlighting the work of Western students. In the future, Amacher hopes to expand this event to include students from other regional colleges including Bellingham Technical College and Whatcom Community College.

In addition to the event, Amacher will develop a Science in Society elective for the Chemistry department, focusing on scientific communication. Amacher is teaching an Honors seminar version of this course in spring 2022 centered around viral pandemics throughout history.

Assistant Professor Ying Bao was awarded a $366,533 grant from the National Science Foundation to study new avenues in nanosensor development by using plasmonic nanoparticles to detect protein molecules via creating a molecular mold of these proteins in a glass-like material. Plasmonic nanoparticles are metal nanoparticles that can be made to have waves of electrons on their surfaces by shining light on the particles. The project offers students the opportunity to gain nanoscience research experience through course-based research and summer research positions.

Erin Duffy (Assistant Professor, Chemistry), Norda Stephenson (Assistant Professor, Chemistry), and Lina Dahlberg (Associate Professor, Biology) were awarded a $299,000 grant to explore how learners develop expertise in scientific disciplines with a focus on making science education more equitable and inclusive.

The project will examine student learning in university-level laboratory courses by focusing on eight scientific practices described in the framework for K-12 education in an effort to make courses more equitable and supportive for a greater diversity of learners. The practices include technical aspects, such as analyzing data, as well as social skills, such as communication. The project will investigate the similarities and differences of scientific practices incorporated into introductory biology, chemistry, and physics lab courses; how students, staff, faculty, and teaching assistances value these practices; and how student engagement is encouraged and rewarded.

Assistant Professor Mike Larsen was awarded a $330,000 grant to help address the accelerating global accumulation of plastic waste. One of the major contributors to plastic waste are thermosets, which cannot be reprocessed or recycled and have limited reuse potential. The Larsen group has discovered a new dynamic chemical reaction to help recycle these materials, and the project will explore the effects of molecular structure on polymer dynamics and behavior. Six to eight undergraduate students and one master’s student will work on the project, providing Western students with experience and training of in-demand techniques in the fields of polymer science and sustainability

Computer simulations are useful to model biological molecules at the atomic scale, but small fluctuations propagated over time can lead to large changes. One way to overcome this problem is to use algorithms that will enhance the sampling of rare events, making them occur at a greater frequency, but this can lead to a loss of information about the underlying dynamics. Assistant Professor of Computational Biochemistry Jay McCarty was awarded $342,131 for his project, which aims to create a new computational framework to sample from accelerated simulations using the statistics of rare events to construct the true dynamics from short, biased simulations. This research aims to create a computational screening protocol for drug development that can asses mutations and provide new tools to researchers to interpret NMR measurements. This project will increase opportunities for Western students to engage in computational research.