Inside USD

The Science of Attraction

Thursday, February 21, 2008

lablrg.jpgThroughout history, the popular image of a scientist is of an individual working alone in a lab, surrounded by beakers and a Bunsen burner. In realty, modern scientific discovery is a group enterprise nourished by universities, community involvement, foundations, government and private enterprise.


The completion of the University of San Diego’s 150,000-square-foot state-of-the-art Donald P. Shiley Center for Science in Technology in 2003 combined with its outstanding faculty has helped the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry attract more than $2 million in funding from public and private sources over the last year. That comes on top of more than $2.5 million raised since 2003.


The most recent success? A $500,000 Department Development award from the Tucson, Ariz.-based Research Corporation that will be matched by funds from USD for a $1 million-plus investment in USD science.  The faculty in the department have committed to leveraging this award with additional research funds from external funding agencies.  This award will support additional faculty and staff for the department.  Most importantly, it will provide a large amount of support for undergraduate students.  Specifically, there will be funding to support academic-year undergraduate research and travel funds for students to present their results at conferences.  The department expects that this increase in resources will facilitate progress and attract national recognition for USD as a premier institution known for excellence in undergraduate science teaching and research.


“It’s like winning a national championship,” says Thomas Herrinton, Associate Provost and chemistry faculty member.  The award is one of only six national awards made by Research Corp. in the last 10 years and required extensive evaluation and site visits, along with a five-year development plan.


“We want the University of San Diego to be among the best places to study and practice chemistry and biochemistry at the undergraduate level,” says Tammy Dwyer, chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.


The award follows on the heels of several other highly prestigious awards. Last fall, USD Assistant Professor of Chemistry Peter Iovine was honored with a $475,000 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation. The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program is the NSF’s top award in support of the early career-development activities of those teacher-scholars who most effectively integrate research and education, building a firm foundation for a lifetime of integrated contributions by the recipient.


The NSF’s award will support work in the study of dendrimers, perfectly branched polymeric molecules with potential applications as new materials, drug delivery agents and enzyme mimics.


One objective of the grant is to use “sticky-ended” dendrimers to chemically modify a renewable material called lignin. By attaching the “sticky-ended” dendrons, Iovine hopes to create novel synthetic hybrid materials that could be used as an eco-friendly plastic.

“If the goals are achieved, the work may impact our reliance on foreign oil by reducing the demand for traditionally synthetic polymers derived from petrochemicals,” he says.


Issues related to improving the environment are also central to another large grant recently awarded to USD.


Associate Professor of Chemistry David De Haan, received a major research grant of $310,000 from the NSF, funded through the Research in Undergraduate Institutions (RUI) Faculty Research Projects program and NSF’s Directorate of Geosciences.


His research focuses on the interactions between dicarbonyl compounds—such as glyoxal—and animes triggered by droplet evaporation. Dicarbonyl compounds have been implicated in the formation of haze in the atmosphere. Since the major source of glyoxal over Southern California’s skies is from components of unburned evaporated gasoline,  DeHaan’s research may suggest a way to reduce haze in the region through gasoline reformation.


A key element of the research at USD is involving undergraduate students. USD is carving a niche as a comprehensive, national university that not only offers but requires research opportunities for undergraduate students in chemistry and biochemistry. “That’s a big distinction,” says Dwyer.


A major contribution to that goal is an award of nearly $600,000 from the Henry Luce Foundation to establish the Clare Booth Luce Professorship in chemistry and biochemistry. Only 158 such professorships have been established since Mrs. Luce’s bequest established the program in 1989. The Luce Foundation was especially impressed with the chemistry department’s rapid increase in the number of female chemistry and  biochemistry majors. “Of our current majors, 62 percent are female,” says USD Professor of Chemistry Debbie Tahmassebi. 


Dwyer sees the success of the department manifesting itself in many ways:

  • The number of students choosing to study chemistry has exploded with the number of majors doubling in less than five years and the number of students involved with research is at an all-time high.

  • USD is attracting even more top students to study chemistry and has set a goal of increasing the graduates who go on to graduate school from 20 to 25 percent up to at least 33 percent.

  • Finally, the number of publications submitted to peer-reviewed journals by USD chemistry and biochemistry faculty with student co-authors is at an all-time high and expected to grow even further with the new funding over the next few years.


Taken as a group, these awards represent a giant leap forward for the study of the sciences at USD. “The funding we are attracting is a reflection of the keen interest generated by the Shiley Center and most importantly, the extremely talented faculty and their dedication to student learning and success ,” said USD President Mary E. Lyons.

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