Dean of Faculty Report

Faculty Accomplishments October 2010

Alexi Arango received a $25,000 research grant through the UMass NSF Center for Hierarchical Manufacturing to help bridge his work into the center. The UMass group is one of those National Science Foundation funded centers, and the idea is to bring interdisciplinary groups together to work on next generation devices that integrate devices at different length scales, starting with 30 nanometers up. They have three foci: nanoscale materials and processes, nanoelectronics, and bio-directed assemblies and devices. Among the issues are how to integrate top down processes with self-assembly – kind of like the challenges involved in colleges and universities: integrating grass-roots creativity with centralized planning. There is a good chance that the money will be annual for the life of the center.

Alexi Arango and Janice Hudgings have just learned that they received $150,000 from the National Science Foundation to fund their two-year project Feasibility of Increasing Organic LED Lifetime via Improved Thermal Management. They were funded through NSF’s Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) Program, which was set up to underwrite promising, possibly transformative work at an early high risk stage. Alexi has been building a first class lab for working with students to fabricate organic and quantum dot light emitting diodes. Such devices are extremely promising as highly efficient light sources. Unfortunately, the brighter you want them, the more self-heating and hot spots you get, and the shorter the lifespan. At the moment, the lifespans are too short which makes the cost prohibitive for commercial applications. Even more unfortunately, no one understands the self-heating or the formation of hot spots, so it is not clear how to design devices that do not have these defects. Enter Janice and her students. Over the last three years, they designed and built a new type of microscope that allows one to make high-resolution, non-contact, 3D thermal images. In particular, it allows one to “see” hotspots, temperature currents and gradients inside things like lasers and ordinary LEDs. The project has led to a patent, a start-up company, six papers and a bunch of conference talks with undergrads. The imaging technique will allow Alexi and Janice and students to investigate the formation of hotspots and other self-heating phenomena in organic LEDs. If they succeed, the practical consequences would be enormous.

Debbora Battaglia has just been named Five College 40th Anniversary Professor. These professorships were created by the Board of Five Colleges on the occasion of its fortieth anniversary to single out faculty members in the Five Colleges who have particularly distinguished teaching and scholarly records. These three-year appointments involve having the honoree teach one course each year of his or her own choosing at another campus. Other Mount Holyoke faculty who have held this honor include Chris Benfey, Joe Ellis, and Indira Peterson.

Kathy Binder and her colleague Scott Ardoin of the University of Georgia have received a grant from the Institute of Education Sciences for their project “Exploring reading fluency and its underlying behaviors.” The four year, 1.5 million dollar award will study what changes in instructional procedures in second grade students optimize reading behavior as measured by eye-tracking.

Jill Bubier has just received $884,646 from the National Science Foundation to fund the project Ecosystem responses to atmospheric N deposition in an ombrotrophic bog: vegetation and microclimate feedbacks lead to stronger C sink or source? Much of the land north of 40 degrees latitude can be classified as peatlands. Jill and her colleagues in Canada, Finland and the United States study how changes in the amount of nitrogen in the atmosphere change whether or not bogs take carbon out of the atmosphere (good) or emit it into the atmosphere (bad). Apparently, it does not take much to tip a bog from being a carbon sink to a carbon source. What happens is the bog community plant changes and becomes less involved in photosynthesis and the ecosystem respiration rate increases. Jill, her students, and their coworkers in Canada, Finland, and the United States will study the vegetation changes that change bogs from sinks to sources, and the feedback loop between nitrogen and carbon. For the last ten years, Jill and her students have been doing painstaking experiments at a bog site outside of Ottawa, Ontario varying amounts of moisture and soil nutrients. It’s painstaking because you can’t control everything, and the measurements are delicate, so they also have to factor in different levels of light, temperature, and rainfall. Jill’s co-PI on the grant is Steve Frolking at UNH – he and his team create peatland models. They work with a third person, Nigel Roulet of McGill, who models the whole earth and the carbon cycle. You might ask how they can manage to spend nearly a million bucks. First, they have an onsite post-doc who helps the students at the Ottawa bog. They will shortly begin studying another bog. Then Jill’s students get to travel to meet with the teams of collaborators. The reviewers pointed out how productive Jill’s team has been: in the last 5 years, they have published 14 peer-reviewed papers, and have 7 more in the works. They cite the proposed research, with its mix between empirical work and model building, as “potentially transformative.” They were especially laudatory of their proposal to look at what goes on just below the ground in the bogs. They were, to my mind, a little begrudging about the incredible education that participation in Jill’s project gives students, huffing a little about the amount of time that she devotes to the topic. Still, they allowed that 4 of the papers with undergraduate co-authors were outstanding, and it was remarkable that 22 of the 30 conference presentations and abstracts coming from the work included undergraduate presenters.

Jane Crosthwaite received a research fellowship from Winterthur Museum. The Winterthur Museum and Library which is associated with the University of Delaware has an outstanding collection of American furniture, artifacts and decorative arts, and the Library has, to quote Jane, “a super collection of Shaker manuscripts and other items in its impressive holdings.” The fellowship grants a month’s residential study and a stipend of $1500.

Darren Hamilton received $190,149 from the National Science Foundation for his three-year project Directed Molecular Architectural Assembly via Dynamic Covalent Chemistry. Darren and his students build molecules with prescribed shapes. They build molecules with knots, others that are linked, and others that have pockets that can be used to hold and protect still other molecules. Two years ago, he and his students discovered a neat new way of making molecular links – that is molecules with rings that are linked with one another – by using solid substrates and controlling the temperature of the reactions using a microwave oven. Their work resulted in four papers with student co-authors in prestigious American Chemical Society journals and more money. A big key to their work is the new technique of dynamic covalent chemistry in which one creates things using reversible reactions near equilibrium and then alters the conditions, often thermally and sometimes with new solvents, to create conditions that favor the creation of what one wants. At an appropriate point, you freeze the reaction and harvest the desired molecules. Darren and his students demonstrated that they could make molecules consisting of a ring with a dumbbell shaped molecule through the ring using this technique. This was a significant breakthrough because such gadgets, so-called rotaxanes, can serve as little rotors in nanomachines, and it raises the prospect of constructing useful molecular machines in accessible, inexpensive ways.
We have now received official word that Martha Hoopes and her group of ecologists at primarily undergraduate institutions were funded by the National Science Foundation. Their collaborative has been awarded $530,000 from the National Science Foundation to fund their five year project involving workshops, conferences, a website, pilot projects, student focus groups, dispersed research gathering and the like.

Andy Lass received the AAA/Oxford University Press Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching of Anthropology. This is a big deal, and is the American Anthropological Association’s highest award for teaching. Previous winners have included some legendary anthropologists. Andy will receive the award this November in New Orleans at the AAA’s annual meeting.

Audrey Lee-St. John received a grant from SolidWorks to fund a student to work over the summer. SolidWorks is a company that makes software that allows one to realistically simulate motion in physical system with real constraints – it is sort of like a next-generation computer-aided design program. The student was going to use the software and a theoretical approach called infinitesimal rigidity theory (in which Audrey is expert) to recognize joints. Audrey requested $3,600, but the company gave her $10,000! It is almost axiomatic in the grant world that you will not receive more money than you ask for – this clearly is a counter-example.

Barbara Lerner received $15,000 from the National Science Foundation (via a subcontract on a grant to Trinity College) to work with two of her students on developing a part of an open source medical records system. They joined a project that Partners in Health started in 2004 with the goal of developing a free medical records system for use in the developing world. The software would allow physicians and public health workers to better combat AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. So far, versions of the software are being used in 20 countries, mostly in Africa, but also in Haiti, China, India, Pakistan and the Philippines. The students worked on the Draft Forms Module for the software.

Becky Packard has received a $26,222 grant from the National Science Foundation for her project Working Class Women using Community College Pathways to Four Year STEM Degrees. In the six community colleges where she has been tracking women who transfer to four year colleges, Becky and her students have discovered that many fewer than expected are enrolling in official STEM (Science, technology, engineering and mathematics) transfer programs. They want to understand why.

Tom Wartenberg received a grant of $121,966 from the National Endowment of Humanities to find his project, Summer Seminar for School Teachers on Existentialism. Tom, who is currently serving on the American Philosophical Association’s committee on Pre-College Instruction in Philosophy, begins with a paradox. Existentialist popular writings and fiction are deceptively accessible and read by every high school student. Think Sartre’s No Exit or Camus’s The Stranger. In fact, existentialism is often identified with philosophy. However, existentialist theoretical writings are very dense and address issues of compelling importance for our modern society. Things like the nature of freedom, and why we run from it. Or anxiety. None of this comes through in the superficial analysis of the popular writings, which is a pity. Tom proposes to begin to change this by engaging high school teachers with the theoretical underpinnings of what they think they are teaching.