Tag: National Science Foundation

Four national grants provide boost for LU faculty, bring more students into research

Julie Rana, assistant professor of mathematics, works with students in a Discrete Mathematics class in Briggs Hall. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Two Lawrence University faculty members—Julie Rana in Mathematics and Israel Del Toro in Biology—are the recipients of six-figure national grants that will further their research and bring more Lawrence students into the research process.

Two other faculty members—Lori Hilt ’97 in Psychology and Beth Zinsli ’02 in Art History— received five-figure national grants to enhance their work.

Catherine Gunther Kodat, provost and dean of faculty, said bringing in four national grants this fall speaks to the breadth of the high-level work being done by Lawrence’s faculty. It comes on the heels of Lawrence being named one of the best liberal arts colleges for undergraduate teaching by U.S. News and World Report.

“It’s wonderfully gratifying to see our faculty receiving national recognition for something we at Lawrence have always known—our faculty are gifted, dedicated teachers who are also engaged in ground-breaking scholarship across the full range of the liberal arts disciplines,” Kodat said. “Being able to count such accomplished individuals as colleagues is a true privilege.”

NSF math grant supports research, inclusive pedagogy

Rana, assistant professor of mathematics since 2017, was awarded a two-year grant of $192,905 through the National Science Foundation’s Launching Early-Career Academic Pathways in the Mathematical and Physical Sciences (LEAPS-MPS) program. It’s a first-time grant, awarded to pre-tenure faculty. It’s a huge accomplishment for Rana, with only 21 grants awarded across the country.

A portion of the grant will allow Rana to work on research in algebraic geometry related to moduli spaces, collaborating with math scholars in Europe, Chile, and elsewhere in the United States. The funding will allow her to hire four students in each of the next two summers to work with her on research in an area of math known as graph theory.

“The best part of this project is that students will join a community of peers working together on fun and interesting math problems,” Rana said. “Mathematics is a very collaborative discipline, and I’m just thrilled that I get to share that joy of collaboration with students over the next two summers.”

In addition, the grant will cover costs of work Rana is doing in developing math curriculum and support mechanisms aimed at making Lawrence’s mathematics, computer science, and data science programs more inclusive and accessible. She’s developing two new math courses—Mathematics and Community (developed in collaboration with senior Caitlyn Lansing), debuting in Winter Term, and Modern BIPOC Mathematicians, debuting next year—and organizing inclusive pedagogy reading groups among the faculty.

The grant is covering the costs of bringing two speakers to campus who have been significant voices in improving inclusivity in STEM fields. Both are women of color who have carved out impressive careers as math scholars and have authored or edited works aimed at widening the path into the mathematics field.

Emille Lawrence, an associate professor and chair of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of San Francisco, is expected to visit Lawrence in Winter Term, Rana said. She is the editor of the American Mathematical Society’s Math Mamas blog and co-edited Living Proof, a collection of essays featuring mathematicians of various identities sharing how they found communities and persevered through professional challenges.

Pamela E. Harris, an associate professor of mathematics and statistics at Williams College, is expected to visit during the 2022-23 academic year. She has been a leading voice for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the STEM fields, math in particular. She co-founded Lathisms.org, a platform that features the contributions of Latinx and Hispanic math scholars, and co-hosts the podcast, Mathematically Uncensored. She’s the co-author of two books advocating for students of color in mathematics.

The NSF grant will allow for all of these initiatives to move forward at once.

“I worked hard to get this grant,” Rana said. “I’m really proud that I got it because there just aren’t very many of us who got it.”

Rana said the collaborations with other math scholars who are focused on algebraic geometry will take her research to another level. She’ll have the opportunity to travel to other institutions to work directly with her collaborators, and she’ll be able to bring some of them to Lawrence.

“Without this, I wouldn’t be able to go work with them in person,” she said. “It’s a lot easier to do math in person.”

Bee research focus of NSF grant

Israel Del Toro

Del Toro, an assistant professor of biology since 2016, was awarded a two-year, $199,957 EAGER grant from the National Science Foundation to enhance the research he’s doing on bee conservation. The grant will allow Del Toro to supersize his research, including bringing more students into the process.

Over the past five years, Del Toro has done extensive field work on pollinator habitats, advocating for bee conservation not only on campus but across the Fox Valley. This grant will allow him to take that work into a lab, investigating the varied reasons that bees are good pollinators. He’ll be collaborating with colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, using microtomography (microCT) technology to take a closer look at the inner workings of bees.

“We are taking a look under the hood of a bee,” Del Toro said. “And really taking a peek to see why the internal parts of the bee allow them to be effective pollinators.”

Read more: Lawrence on front lines of bee advocacy

Del Toro will be using the microCT technology at UW. He and his students also will be doing experiments in the lab at Lawrence that relate to climate change.

“We’ll be doing thermal tolerance, figuring out how bees are affected as we increase and decrease temperature,” he said. “We want to see how increases and decreases in temperatures affect bee behavior and bee restoration and try to make predictions of how these populations would be affected in the future.”

Over the two years of the grant, eight Lawrence students will be able to join Del Toro in his research.

“I’m actively recruiting students who have interest in ecology or microscopy or pollinator biology,” he said. “Those are the students I’m looking to take on. We’re going to learn some really cool new things about pollinators, but also how to better protect our pollinators in light of climate change.”

Psychology grant to help build on adolescent rumination research

Lori Hilt

Hilt, an associate professor of psychology, received a subaward for more than $51,000 throughHarvard University from the National Institutes of Health. She will serve as an expert on adolescent rumination on a five-year clinical trial. It follows a three-year $368,196 grant she received from NIH in 2019 to study adolescent rumination and the development of a mobile app designed as a coping tool for young people.

Adolescent rumination refers to a mindset in which someone can’t get beyond the negative things that are happening around them. Where most kids will process something bad that has happened, react to it and then move on, an adolescent struggling with rumination will dwell on the negative information, stew on it until it consumes them, unable to let go.

Read more: 2019 NIH grant helps professor develop mental health app

“The new NIH grant is a really nice follow-up to my other NIH grant,” Hilt said. “In our previous grant research, we found that using a brief mindfulness mobile app intervention that we developed — known as the CARE app — reduced rumination and mental health symptoms relative to a mood-monitoring control condition. The new grant will similarly recruit ruminative teens and ask them to use a mindfulness mobile app, this time for one month using the Headspace app vs. a control condition.”

The primary study site is at Harvard’s McLean Hospital. A functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan will be done before and after the teens use the app.

“This will allow us to see whether a brief mindfulness intervention changes brain network patterns that have been associated with rumination,” Hilt said.

This grant will allow Hilt and other participants to take a personalized medicine approach by examining which teens benefit from mindfulness training.

“This is something that we started looking at in our other grant, and it offers a promising new approach to mental health—being able to know if a particular intervention will work before engaging in it,” Hilt said.  

NEH grant to provide insights into preserving Teakwood Room

Teakwood Room

Zinsli, assistant professor of art history and curator of the Wriston Art Center Galleries, was awarded a $10,000 Preservation Assistance Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The grant will provide a professional assessment of the Teakwood Room and its contents so that Lawrence knows best how to steward the room going forward.

Zinsli called the room “a university treasure and a distinctive piece of global material culture” that needs careful attention.

“The recommendations from the assessment report will allow LU to steward the room and its objects responsibly and expand access to the space,” she said.

Read more: Teakwood Room among the treasures of Lawrence

The Teakwood Room, located in Chapman Hall, was originally built by American artist and architect Lockwood de Forest in Alice Chapman’s Milwaukee home. After Chapman died in 1935, the Teakwood Room was placed in Chapman Library on the Milwaukee-Downer campus and used for receptions, poetry readings, and chamber music. When Lawrence and Downer consolidated in 1964, members of the Downer community asked that the room be preserved. The room was carefully disassembled and stored in a warehouse until 1968, when it was reassembled at Lawrence.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Note: Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this content are solely the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Institutes of Health, or the National Science Foundation.”

Lawrence’s Dillon receives prestigious NSF Fellowship to pursue math research

Travis Dillon ’21 (Photo by Danny Damiani)

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Travis Dillon ’21 has received a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) award that will assist the mathematics major as he heads to graduate school and pursues a doctorate.

The NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) award, which provides three years of financial support to any institution of his choice, comes a year after Dillon was named a Goldwater Scholar, also a highly competitive honor. It also marks the second consecutive year that a Lawrence senior has received an NSF GRFP award. A year ago, Willa Dworschack ’20, a physics major, earned the honor.

The NSF Fellowship is among the most coveted in STEM fields. Students heading into graduate school as well as students already in a Ph.D. program are eligible to apply for the award from the NSF, an independent agency of the federal government that supports research and education in math and the sciences. Its fellowship award, first launched in 1952, is given to approximately 2,000 recipients a year to support the next generation of STEM leaders as they pursue research-based master’s and doctoral degrees. 

No matter where Dillon goes to graduate school—he’s been accepted at and is deciding between Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and University of California-San Diego—he said the award will give him flexibility, most notably not needing to work to cover expenses.

“I’ll be able to repurpose that time to focus on my classes and research,” he said.

Lawrence has impressive track record with STEM-to-Ph.D. success. Read more here.

The Newport, Washington, native has excelled in mathematics research during his time at Lawrence. He pursued an independent project that led to two published papers. He took part in a high-level math program in Budapest during his junior year. His work has taken him to Texas A&M’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), a research program sponsored by the NSF, and he’s done research with noted City University of New York professor Pablo Soberón. Along the way, he’s worked closely with Lawrence Assistant Professor of Mathematics Elizabeth Sattler and counts her as an important mentor.

Much of his research has focused on a branch of math known as combinatorics, which involves the study of discrete and finite objects.

“If you want to count or enumerate, arrange or rearrange, or really just understand the inner workings of some finite structure, combinatorics is what’s called for,” Dillon said. “It might sound simplistic or wishy-washy, but it’s not. Combinatorics has grown from a collection of ad hoc techniques to a fairly comprehensive body of knowledge with connections throughout the many subfields of mathematics, and it provides much of the mathematical basis for theoretical computer science and those algorithms that make our fancy-schmancy laptops and phones do so many things so quickly.”

Dillon finished his Lawrence graduation requirements during Winter Term. He’s spending the spring working on various research projects and preparing for a grad school journey that could open a myriad of doors in the world of mathematics. He expects to make a decision on where he’ll attend grad school in the coming days. It’s all part of a deep dive into mathematics that he is relishing.

“I derive a lot of satisfaction from completing projects; I really like stepping back from the finished product and seeing that I’ve created something,” Dillon said. “So, I get a lot of fulfillment from the work itself. When I heard that I was selected for an NSF fellowship, though, I was, as the kids say, pumped. No matter how much individual satisfaction I get from my work, it’s always affirming to hear someone else say that you’re on the right track, especially when this someone else is a panel of experts in the field. It’s encouraging and energizing.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Lawrence’s Dworschack earns 3-year NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

Willa Dworschack ’20

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Willa Dworschack ’20 is the recipient of a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, providing full funding for up to three years of research at any institution of her choice.

The Lawrence University physics major from Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, continues to add to her impressive resume. Following her graduation from Lawrence in June, the prestigious NSF Fellowship will fully support three years of her research in atomic, molecular, and optical physics at the University of Colorado Boulder and the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics (JILA).

“The opportunity to conduct research at JILA is unparalleled, and the support of the NSF grants me freedom to pursue research in the quantum sciences,” Dworschack said. “I am thrilled about this honor and grateful for all the wonderful opportunities that I have been able to take advantage of as a result of being at Lawrence University.”

Lawrence continues to excel in the STEM fields. Details here.

The National Science Foundation is an independent agency of the federal government that supports research and education in the sciences. Its fellowship award, first launched in 1952, is given to approximately 2,000 recipients a year to support the next generation of STEM leaders as they pursue research-based master’s and doctoral degrees. 

A year ago, Dworschack was named a Goldwater Scholar, in part on the strength of her research in atomic and molecular optics. The Goldwater Scholarship, the preeminent undergraduate award of its type in these fields, is administered by the Goldwater Foundation.

Lawrence has a Goldwater Scholar in back-to-back years. Details here.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Lawrence University Awarded $552,000 NSF Grant for Advanced Research Instrumentation

The largest instrumentation grant in Lawrence University’s history — $552,666 from the National Science Foundation — will fund the purchase of a confocal microscope system to support biological research and strengthen hands-on research training.

Confocal microscopy is a cutting edge technique that provides the best available resolution of microscopic images and allows the reconstruction of three-dimensional structures from images obtained through the microscope. Seven teams of faculty mentors and student researchers — six from Lawrence and one from the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley — will use the microscope to advance understanding in developmental biology, cell biology, physiology and biochemistry.

Current research projects the microscope will aid include age-related synaptic decline found in Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, the role a particular protein may play in ALS and some kinds of
tumors and how protein signals in a developing embryo help properly position various parts of the body.

The instrument also will provide Lawrence students opportunities to gain valuable experience through summer research with faculty members as well as upper-level lab courses and Senior Experience projects.  As many as 32 students a year are expected to assist with research involving the confocal microscope.

“It’s incredibly exciting to have a sophisticated instrument like this. We have recognized for several years the critical need for this particular type of microscope if we want to continue providing our students and ourselves with the tools needed for modern biological research,” said Nancy Wall, associate professor of biology. “We’ll finally be able to undertake research projects we have wanted and needed to undertake but couldn’t without a confocal microscope. This is a major boost for faculty research programs and an essential tool for undergraduate training. Professor Beth De Stasio’s hard work and leadership were instrumental in securing the grant funding for this microscope.”

In recommending the grant, NSF reviewers said Lawrence should be considered “a leader and model for undergraduate engagement in research. They have invested significant efforts to move toward inquiry-based learning approaches in their curriculum, with early experiences that feed different but similarly intensive and research based experiences in the summers or during senior years.”

Another reviewer praised the Lawrence faculty for “an impressive track record in successful research collaborations with undergraduate students” while a third mentioned “a culture of “engaging undergraduates in meaningful ways with active research.”

Lawrence faculty researchers incorporating the confocal microscope into their research include Wall; Beth De Stasio, professor of biology and Raymond H. Herzog Professor of Science; Kimberly Dickson, assistant professor of biology; Judith Humphries, assistant professor of biology; Nicholas Maravolo, professor of biology; and Brian Piasecki, postdoctoral fellow in biology.

Strengthening an existing partnership with UW-Fox Valley, the microscope also will be used for research training by Dubear Kroenig, associate professor of biological sciences at the two-year college.

Founded in 1847, Lawrence University uniquely integrates a college of liberal arts and sciences with a world-class conservatory of music, both devoted exclusively to undergraduate education. Ranked among America’s best colleges, it was selected for inclusion in the book “Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About College.” Individualized learning, the development of multiple interests and community engagement are central to the Lawrence experience. Lawrence draws its 1,520 students from 44 states and 56 countries.

Lawrence University LU-R1 Undergraduate Research Program Pairs Students with Leading Alumni Scientists

Lawrence University student Bennett Pang never imagined he would be isolating “natural killer” cells from human blood samples as an undergraduate. The biology major from Honolulu, Hawaii contributed to a novel immunology study this summer at the University of New Mexico Cancer Center.

Lawrence junior Grace Rothstein spent her summer at the University of Georgia’s Complex Carbohydrate Research Center exploring ways to modify plant cell walls so they can be used more efficiently for biofuel production. Part of her responsibilities included creating a database for more than 2,000 plants.

Pang and Rothstein were among 11 students who participated in an innovative undergraduate research program launched by Lawrence: LU-R1: Partnership Opportunities for Students.

The program pairs qualified Lawrence students with Lawrence alumni scientists who are directing research laboratories at major universities (R1 institutions) across the country, including the University of New Mexico, Michigan State University, the University of Utah, the University of Pennsylvania and the Mayo Clinic, among others.

LU-R1 takes undergraduate research to the next level, providing significant opportunities typically reserved for graduate students at major universities, clinical research settings and government agencies, while strengthening ties between Lawrence University and its alumni. An ancillary goal of the program is to provide research experiences that can enhance students’ Senior Experience capstone projects.

“The LU-R1 program provides undergraduate students with innovative learning opportunities that are beyond the normal resources of most colleges,” said Lawrence President Jill Beck. “By tapping our alumni as distinguished mentors, we’re enabling our science majors to engage in cutting-edge questions, learn new methodologies and gain vital experience toward their graduate studies and careers.”

Dr. Stuart Winter '83 and Bennett Pang '11

Working under the direction of Dr. Stuart Winter, a 1983 Lawrence graduate and chief of pediatric oncology at the University of New Mexico Cancer Center, Pang spent 10 weeks in the center’s hematologic malignancies research program. Pang assisted on a potential drug therapy for the treatment of leukemia that uses the body’s own immune system. Seeking alternatives to existing chemotherapy drugs, Winter began work on an “immuno-chemotherapy” model last spring.

“When I first arrived, I knew very little about immunology and leukemia. Now I have experience in both fields,” said Pang, who is considering biomedical research as a career option. “The LU-R1 program was an opportunity to participate in top-level research. I could see myself working in a lab like that some day.”

Winter admitted to some initial doubts, but discovered Pang was up for the challenge and was well-prepared by his Lawrence teachers.

“Bennett did a great job in the lab helping isolate the natural killer cells in the blood,” said Winter. “At the undergraduate level, a lot of learning is done around basic human biology concepts. This research takes those concepts and applies them to human medicine.”

Rothstein, a self-proclaimed science junkie from Whitefish Bay, Wis., says she came away from the experience “with a tremendous amount of respect for anyone who does research. How much work and independent study goes into everything isn’t necessarily something I would have known had I not had an opportunity like this.”

University of Missouri biochemist Scott Peck, a 1988 Lawrence graduate whose research focuses on boosting plant immunity against potential pathogens, sees training young scientists as future colleagues as an important part of his job. He served as a mentor for Lawrence biology major Jeff Nichols.

“This program is incredibly valuable on so many levels,” Peck said. “Lawrence students receive additional laboratory training that reinforces their excellent classroom education and makes them more competitive in the job market or in their applications to professional school while the host universities receive assistance in advancing our research.”

LU-R1’s potential bigger impact, says Peck, is helping the United States improve its position in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers.

“While STEM-related jobs continue to increase, the number of U.S. students pursuing careers in these areas continues to decrease. Bright, capable students interested in science often pursue careers as doctors. By exposing students to research and discussing career alternatives, we may open the door for a student to a fulfilling career that otherwise would have gone unconsidered.”

According to a National Science Foundation report, Lawrence University ranked 37th nationally among undergraduate institutions, per capita, in producing the most students who went on to earn Ph.D.s in engineering and the sciences.

At its core, LU-R1 is about energizing undergraduate students about science says Professor of Biology Nicholas Maravalo, the program’s director.

“One of the objectives is to have these students bring these projects back to campus, excite the other students and the faculty, bring the techniques and approaches back to campus and use them as a focus of their own Senior Experience.”

The LU-R1 program is supported by a gift from the estate of Maurine Mueller in memory of her husband, Robert, a 1936 Lawrence graduate, and other alumni donations.

A video of the program in action can be watched below:

Lawrence University Physicist Awarded $178,000 National Science Foundation Grant

A curious visitor peering through the glass of Room 044 in the basement of Lawrence University’s Science Hall and seeing the large, elevated, aluminum “drum,” its wide sides wrapped with thick, black bundles of wire amid an array of other attached tubes and hoses, might conclude they had just stumbled upon an industrial-strength, high-tech washing machine. Or perhaps a remnant of eccentric “Doc” Brown’s “Back to the Future” workshop.

Far from being a fancy Maytag or a mad scientist movie prop, the contraption is the cornerstone of Lawrence University associate professor of physics Matthew Stoneking’s scientific research. The drum, a “toroidal vacuum chamber” to be exact, which Stoneking brought with him to Lawrence from his research associate days at the University of Wisconsin, is at the heart of his work on pure electron plasmas.

Now, thanks to a three-year, $178,000 grant Stoneking has received from the National Science Foundation, he soon will begin constructing a new and greatly improved apparatus, permitting more sophisticated experimentation. Stoneking’s NSF grant will enable him, in conjuction with Lawrence physics students, to build a less imposing, but much more precisely designed and constructed vacuum chamber out of stainless steel and copper in his new laboratory in the recently renovated Youngchild Hall.

Pure electron plasmas are collections or “clouds” of electrons confined in a vacuum chamber using magnetic and electric fields. Stoneking’s research focuses on the criteria needed for confining a stable electron plasma in a toroidal — donut-shaped — magnetic field and the factors that limit the duration of the confinement in such systems.

A toroidal magnetic field can be visualized as a bundle of lines wrapped into a circular loop, allowing charged particles, such as electrons, to stream or “flow” along those lines like beads on a wire.

Plasma physics is the scientific foundation for the potential future production of electric power by nuclear fusion.

“Although they do not occur in nature, electron plasmas have proved to be excellent systems for testing our understanding of the behavior of ‘complex’ fluids,” said Stoneking. “They can serve as a kind of ‘wind tunnel’ for testing mathematical theories of fluid dynamics.”

In previous experiments, Stoneking successfully confined electron plasmas in a toroidal magnetic field for as long as 2 one-hundredths of a second (or 20 milliseconds). Stoneking estimates the new chamber he will build will improve the purity of the vacuum by approximately 100 times and strengthen the magnetic field by a factor of five, resulting in confinement times approaching one second. Durations of that length would provide a more refined comparison of experimental results with existing theoretical predictions.

The NFS grant will also provide both summer research and travel stipends for Stoneking and his students to attend national physics conferences. In addition, it provides Stoneking with funds to establish a collaboration with physics colleagues at the University of California-San Diego.

This is the third grant Stoneking has received in support of his research since joining the Lawrence physics department in 1997.

“This grant will enable us to extend our understanding of electron plasmas and offer excellent research opportunities for our students,” said Stoneking, who earned his Ph.D. in physics at the University of Wisconsin.