NSF Grants Promote Faculty-Student Research
By Gillian Frew
Four Whitman faculty members received three-year National Science Foundation (NSF) research grants emphasizing the integration of teaching and research: Benjamin H. Brown Professor of Physics Mark Beck, Assistant Professor of Biology Arielle Cooley, Associate Professor of Physics Moira Gresham and Assistant Professor of Physics Greg Vaughn-Ogin.
"This award will allow me to work with Whitman students on characterizing quantum information processors, with the goal of detecting and eliminating errors in these systems," said Beck. "Being able to do this will improve our confidence in the reliability of new quantum-physics-based technologies."
Cooley's research centers on the genetic mechanisms underlying repeated evolution, using a model organism.
"I find it really interesting to explore how tiny changes at the molecular level-like a mutation that alters a single one of the 3 billion DNA letters in a human cell-can sometimes result in dramatic changes in the appearance or function of a living thing," Cooley said. "Instead of working on this question in humans, who are not always the most cooperative of study organisms, I work with a group of plants in the ‘monkeyflower' genus Mimulus."
Since 2013, research grants from the NSF and elsewhere have funded an increasing number of summer research students; 35 science students at Whitman received funding in 2017. Faculty members and students both benefit, according to Director of Grants and Foundation Relations Rachna Sinnott '93, as summer research students can work on thesis research with their faculty mentors, earn a stipend for work related to their studies and gain experience for graduate school.
Meghan Feldman '18, a physics and astronomy major, conducted research in Beck's lab over the summer and received support from the NSF to travel to Washington, D.C. to present the results at a national conference.
"My research over the summer allowed me to help verify theories that, when implemented, would help make quantum communications more secure," she said.
Gresham's NSF grant will support her investigation of the nature of dark matter and may strengthen understanding of fundamental physical laws and the evolution of the cosmos; Vaughn-Ogin's award is part of a multi-institutional grant to the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) Scientific Collaboration Center for Coatings Research and will address the problem of thermal noise in the interferometer mirrors of LIGO's gravitational wave detectors. Three scientists instrumental in creating and fostering LIGO's success won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics last fall.
Whitman faculty members have seven active NSF grants, among other research grants that include collaborations with major research institutions such as Harvard, Stanford and Yale. NSF is the only federal agency with a mission that includes support for all fields of science and engineering (excepting medical sciences) and is the major funder of basic scientific research in the United States. NSF grants are highly competitive, with an overall funding rate of about 25 percent for all programs; in 2016, there were 37,000 applications.