NSF awards $539,000 to support undergraduate research opportunities

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Ranil Wickramasinghe

The Ralph E. Martin Department of Chemical Engineering at the U of A has received two grants to support the research experiences of a diverse group of undergraduate students.

The first grant, from the National Science Foundation, is a $431,976 award to create a research experience site for undergraduate students that will focus on chemical separation research and the methodology for evaluating marketing.

The second grant, also from the NSF, is $107,097 and falls under the Research Experience and Mentoring Supplement. Although the purpose of this grant is similar to that of the REU award, it will focus on recruiting students attending NorthWest Arkansas Community College.

The Membrane Science Engineering and Technology Center will be the primary host for these two undergraduate programs. Center director Ranil Wickramasinghe, who worked on the proposal with associate professor of chemical engineering, Shannon Servoss, will serve as principal investigator.

“We are delighted to host the REU and REM programs this year,” said Wickramasinghe. “The REU program builds on our previous successful program, while the REM program will help strengthen our bond with NorthWest Arkansas Community College. Both programs aim to strengthen the participation of underrepresented groups in science and engineering.

Research experience for undergraduate students

The Department of Chemical Engineering will host From Bench to Market: Engineering Systems for High Efficiency Separations Research Experience for Undergraduates for the next three years. The purpose of this REU site is to provide a diverse group of undergraduate students from across the country with research experiences in chemical separations as well as to train them with the skills necessary to create, implement and evaluate the potential commercial research projects.

The 10-week summer program will target up to 10 sophomores rising through seniors from two- and four-year institutions, including those without a doctoral program. Applicants from underrepresented groups within STEM disciplines will be prioritized.

The collaborative environment includes industry and academic experts in separations, as well as leaders in commercialization assessment, and offers students a unique opportunity to experience how research moves from lab to market.

This grant is a renewal of an existing REU site, which was on campus from 2017 to 2019.

Research Experience and Mentoring Supplement

The REM supplement is very similar to the REU site program. The main difference is that it will provide a one-year, tailored research and mentorship program to eight undergraduate students attending NorthWest Arkansas Community College. The immediate goal is to provide a diverse group of undergraduate students with research experiences in membrane separations as well as train them with the skills necessary to create, implement, and evaluate the commercial potential of their research. Upon completion of the program, participants will gain experience in a laboratory focused on separations as well as the ability to assess the commercial potential of a project. The ultimate goal is to encourage these students to pursue four-year Bachelor of Science studies.

The case of membrane separations

In both proposals, the authors noted the importance of separation processes for the production and analysis of chemicals and biologicals. Indeed, they estimate that separation processes “represent 10 to 15% of the global energy budget and 90% of pharmaceutical manufacturing costs”. Developing separation processes at lower cost is both of great societal interest and essential to the development of sustainable manufacturing processes. A lab experience focused on learning about separation efficiency and reducing processing costs would be of great benefit to undergraduate students looking for a career or specialization in this domain.

About the University of Arkansas: As Arkansas’ flagship institution, the U of A offers an internationally competitive education in more than 200 academic programs. Founded in 1871, the U of A contributes more than $2.2 billion to the Arkansas economy through teaching new knowledge and skills, entrepreneurship and employment development, discovery through research and creative activity while providing training in professional disciplines. The Carnegie Foundation ranks the U of A among the few American colleges and universities with the highest level of research activity. US News and World Report ranks the U of A among the top public universities in the nation. Learn how the U of A is working to build a better world at Arkansas Research News.

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