Focus on Faculty
Vasyl Tkach, associate professor of biology, and colleagues Jason Weckstein and John Bates of the Chicago Field Museum have received a $787,000 collaborative grant from the National Science Foundation “Biodiversity Survey and Inventory” program to study the biodiversity and evolution of birds and their parasites in the southern Brazilian Amazon jungles. These areas have the highest proportion of birds that do not occur anywhere else on the planet. At over 6.5 million square kilometers, Amazonia has 40 percent of the remaining tropical forest and is estimated to harbor a tenth of the world’s species. Accurate inventories of species biodiversity are critical for efforts to stem the tide of extinction, understand the interdependencies in the web of life, and reconstruct the evolutionary history of diversity.
Researchers will collect specimens, observe birds, and record their songs and daily activities. The materials collected will be processed in the United States and Brazil using modern molecular and microscopic techniques. Tkach says a large number of new species will be discovered and described.
Elaine Metcalfe, director of TRIO Programs, has secured more than $440,000 to continue recruiting and supporting talented future college students. The “TRIO/Talent Search” Program at UND is a federal grant that provides services to 1,000 low-income, first-generation potential college students (in targeted North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota public middle and high schools) and supports their access to higher education. The program contains a strong research component that measures and tracks students’ high school retention, graduation rates, and eventual enrollment into college.
Jerome Delhommelle, assistant professor of chemistry, recently received a National Science Foundation CAREER Award, the foundation’s most prestigious award in support of junior faculty. Delhommelle received $425,000 over five years to study the crystallization process in semiconductor, metal and molecular systems. He is a leading researcher in the field, with more than 60 research papers published. He’s also the U.S. editor of the international research journal Molecular Simulation, which covers all aspects of research related to molecular modeling and simulation.
Delhommelle’s research could have broad practical implications for a number of industries, ranging from pharmaceuticals to textiles to defense. The award also will support the education of Ph.D. students, design of interdisciplinary
courses, and development of outreach activities, including scientific workshops for high school students in rural Upper Midwest school districts.
Matthew Cavalli, associate professor of mechanical engineering, and John Hurley, senior research adviser at the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC), have collectively secured $600,000 under a U.S. Department of Energy award and a UND match to research a “joining process” called evaporative-metal bonding, developed at the EERC and invented and patented by Cavalli and Hurley. The process facilitates joining of metal alloys at high temperatures and is applicable to gas turbines (used for both airplane engines and ground-based electricity generation) and high-temperature heat exchangers like those in coal-fired power plants.
They will also conduct corrosion testing on the joints in environments similar to those in gas turbines that burn syngas, verifying long-term viability in service.
Min Wu, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, has received an award of nearly $325,000 from the Flight Attendant
Medical Research Institute (FAMRI) to investigate the immune function provided by lung epithelial cells, a skin-type cell on the surface of the lung, to help a special type of white-blood cells, known as macrophages, rapidly eradicate invading pathogens. The research aims to determine how second-hand smoke makes lungs more susceptible to infections by certain bacteria. It could help develop better treatments for people who suffer smoking-related infections or other chronic inflammatory diseases, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary syndrome. The FAMRI grant is the first awarded in North Dakota.
Nicholas Ralston and Laura Raymond of the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) are working to ensure that the many health benefits of consuming fish are realized. Their two-year project, “Fish Selenium-Health Benefit Values in Mercury Risk Management,” was awarded $490,000 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program to study relationships between selenium and mercury in fish. Their research has shown that, since most varieties of ocean fish contain more selenium than mercury, they are safe and beneficial to consume. However, fish that contain more mercury than selenium (a rarity) may be hazardous.
Ralston serves on the EPA’s science advisory panel and recently received a letter of commendation and honorable mention for a Scientific and Technological Achievement Award from EPA. In cooperation with Prairie Public Television, Raymond was the executive producer of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration funded documentary “Fish, Mercury, and Nutrition: The Net Effects,” which summarizes work done by Ralston, Raymond and their colleagues.