$9 million NSF grant will fund science center

Jake Kapsner

University scientists are taking interdisciplinary research to new heights with a federal grant, bringing together Midwestern college undergraduates and corporate scientists at the University.
The National Science Foundation awarded the University $9 million over five years for a new Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, one of about 24 in the nation.
The money enables research into materials science and engineering, such as the study and production of more environmentally friendly plastics and artificial tissues to supplement natural bone and blood vessels.
“It’s very hard to break into this game, and we’re in,” said H. Ted Davis, dean of the Institute of Technology, where the center resides.
The center will be housed in a new wing of Amundson Hall; construction on the wing begins this fall, Davis said.
Although the award is notable in terms of dollar amount, he said, it is especially significant as one of only two new awards the federal science agency made this year.
While the center focuses on materials science and engineering, about 20 faculty from various fields like physics and medicine will work in teams to study the properties of such materials as semiconductors, metal alloys and ceramics.
Frank Bates and Michael Ward, center co-directors and professors in chemical engineering and materials science, said the teams will focus on four major areas: polymers, artificial tissues, magnetic manipulation and porous materials.
Goals of the polymer research, one of the center’s two core programs, include making biodegradable plastics and creating water-dissolvable polymers to replace polyethylene, the most commonly used polymer, said Tim Lodge, group leader and University professor.
Grant money funds 30 to 35 fully paid graduate and post doctoral positions and the purchase of equipment like an electron microscope and x-ray scatterer, Bates said.
The renewable grant also provides three-month fellowship opportunities for students and faculty aimed to integrate science and education. The outreach arm will bring Native American undergraduate students from 13 Midwestern tribal colleges to the Twin Cities each year, Ward said.
Outreach also entails summer fellowships for student-faculty teams from 19 four-year colleges in Minnesota and Wisconsin to work on projects rooted in materials science and engineering, he said.
“Materials science is essentially non-existent for undergraduate students and even faculty at these schools,” Bates said.
In the last phase of the program, the new center joined the Center for Interfacial Engineering, a grant-based program operated through IT for the past 10 years, to bring in private revenue.
Interfacial center director Fennell Evans said 38 companies now bring in more than $1 million to the University.
So far, 12 companies have paid $30,000 to $40,000 to join the new materials science center, money that goes back into programs and materials costs, Bates said.
Attracting private industry not only supplements revenue, it links students with potential employers and lets companies do work in an academic research environment, Bates said.
“This is one of the most successful programs in the country in terms of collaborative and nonproprietary research,” Lodge said. “So it’s the pursuit of knowledge, not the pursuit of profit.”