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WVU Department of Chemistry receives NSF award for undergraduate summer research program

West Virginia University is expanding its outreach to under represented groups to help instill in them the appreciation and importance of research, especially involving chemistry, in improving quality of life.

Two professors in the C. Eugene Bennett department of chemistry in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences have been awarded $300,000 from the National Science Foundation for the purpose of establishing a Research Experiences for Undergraduates site.

Chemistry Professors

A first for the WVU chemistry department, the REU site aims to attract under-represented populations in STEM fields and to teach students the societal applications of their research, specifically in the areas of health and energy.

For 10 weeks beginning in May, Associate 

Professor Michelle-Richards Babb, the project’s principle investigator, and Assistant Professor Brian Popp, co-principal investigator, along with 13 of their colleagues, will serve as mentors to 10 undergraduate students who currently attend colleges or universities other than WVU that are primarily located in Appalachia.

“Appalachia has a lower percentage of folks that have gone to college or have advanced degrees, so we are trying to improve the scientific literacy of Appalachia and of West Virginia,” said Richards-Babb. “This is a way to improve the scientific knowledge of our workforce.”

The REU site will complement NSF funded research efforts that are currently under way in the Department of Chemistry. Research will touch on each of the major disciplines of chemistry: analytical chemistry, physical chemistry, organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry and biochemistry.

“As basic science researchers, we are laying the foundations for scientific innovations at the engineering or biomedical sciences level,” said Popp. “That’s a cornerstone of chemical research.”

For instance, students participating in the program can expect to be exposed to work that includes, but is not limited to: research that aims to determine the mechanisms that cause diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease, which could lead to advancements in treatment and detection; research that will focus on automobiles and finding ways to improve combustion efficiency and reduced emissions, potentially creating a positive impact in the areas of sustainability and transportation; research on carbon nanotubes and their relevance to a variety of nanotechnology fields such as electronics and energy; the use of mass spectrometry, an analytical technique that sorts ions based on their mass, to study the peptides and proteins that are involved in the onset of Huntington’s Disease; research that explores the weathering of gasoline samples under different evaporation conditions which could prove to be useful information for fire investigators; and synthetic methods that could result in decreased toxicity and lower costs within the pharmaceutical industry.

Richards-Babb said she hopes that the experience will help students who participate become better aware of the role chemistry plays in society and encourage them to later on pursue graduate level work.

“It might be a long-term societal impact, but the students will come away understanding the importance of what they’re doing,” said Richards-Babb.

Richards-Babb will serve as the program’s education director while Popp will be the scientific director. Funding, which comes from the REU Sites Program in the Chemistry Division and the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) at the NSF, will support the program for a total of three summer sessions.

“We will work hard to continue the REU site beyond the initial three years,” said Richards-Babb.

Popp teaches courses in organic chemistry. His research is focused on improving the sustainability of transition-metal-catalyzed reactions as well as designing biomolecules with applications for human health. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Richards-Babb teaches courses in general and organic chemistry and her research interest lies in chemical education. She earned her Ph.D. from Lehigh University and was the recipient of a 2013-14 Eberly College Outstanding Teacher Award. She is also the Director of the Office of Undergraduate Research in the Honors College. She previously acted as co- and then principal investigator for the WVU Multifunctional Nanomaterials REU site that earned NSF funding for nine consecutive years under her guidance between 2007 and 2016. That site is now under the direction of Professor of Chemistry Lisa Holland.

The National Science Foundation is an independent federal agency which serves as the funding source for approximately 24 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by America’s colleges and universities.