The Kentucky NSF EPSCoR Program has recently made 17 awards through its annual academic year programs, aimed at bolstering Kentucky’s burgeoning research infrastructure. For more information on each of the awarded projects, please read below.

Expanding Your Horizons – a STEM Conference for Middle School Girls

Principal Investigator: Carmen Agouridis
Institution: University of Kentucky

EOC Award

Funding this proposal would result in the organization and hosting of a second annual Expanding Your Horizons (EYH) Conference at the University of Kentucky (UK). The conference will feature a day of interactive STEM workshops for female middle school students led by UK undergraduate and graduate students, and will also include college preparation sessions for accompanying parents. The primary goal of this conference is to to encourage middle school girls to consider STEM studies by providing them with memorable interactive workshop experiences, visible (female) role models in STEM fields, and exposure to different career paths in STEM. UK undergraduate and graduate students designing and leading these workshops will develop their outreach skills and build confidence in their own scientific and leadership abilities. Finally, parents who attend this conference with their daughters will gain insight into the college preparation process and learn skills to become better advocates for their children as they continue their studies in STEM fields.

Research Experiences for Under-represented Minority High School Students

Principal Investigator: Lisa Vaillancourt
Institution: University of Kentucky

EOC Award

This project is to establish a partnership between the University of Kentucky (U.K.) College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment (CAFE) and the Carter G. Woodson Academy (CGWA), a college preparatory magnet program within the Fayette County Public School (FCPS) system that serves young men who have significant academic potential, but who are at increased risk of experiencing college access gaps. Eighty-five percent of the students at CGWA are African American, and 8% are Hispanic. Sixty- two percent qualify for free and reduced meals. The proposed partnership will facilitate independent, immersive research experiences for CGWA students under the mentorship of CAFE faculty members. The goal is to increase the knowledge of, and interest in, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM), and particularly STEM-associated agriculture, among this traditionally under-represented and under-served student demographic, and ultimately to increase the number of men of color that enter associated college majors and professions.

WKU Makerspace: Diversifying STEM

Principal Investigator: Anne Heintzman
Institution: Western Kentucky University

EOC Award

This proposal builds on the successful establishment of the WKU Makerspace created in the 2016-2017 academic year by a 2016 EOC grant. The Makerspace has built a culture where more than half all participants are URM, female or both and has laid the foundation to support STEM course work through additional grants and support. The proposed 2017-2018 project will support the development of an academic Makerspace course and the first-ever annual Mini-Maker Faire. The course and faire will become part of a permanent makerspace that is used and operated by predominantly URM and/or female students on WKU’s South Campus who are working to become eligible for and choose four-year majors. Funds for this project will be used to (1) employ an advanced STEM student, (2) purchase a safe laser cutter (for project development in the new academic class and Mini-Maker Faire); (3) purchase materials to support a new 3 credit hour Makerspace Technologies academic class, and (4) seed funding for the WKU Makerspace to promote and host WKU/Bowling Green’s first-ever licensed Mini-Maker Faire.

Exploring Aeronautical, Aviation, and Agricultural Technologies in the Commonwealth

Principal Investigator: Thomas Kingery
Institution: Western Kentucky University

EOC Award

The focus for this educational outreach program is to educate students on the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) concepts that are applied to aeronautical, aviation, and agricultural systems in the Commonwealth. Working with rural and/or underserved elementary schools in Warren County, Kentucky, the project will involve the following objectives: 1.) exposing elementary students to the field of aeronautical, aviation, and agriculture in Kentucky, 2.) enhancing knowledge of these concepts utilizing aeronautical, aviation, and agricultural experts in the elementary classrooms, and 3.) exploring the practical use of aeronautical, aviation, and agricultural knowledge through modeling and building of rockets by the elementary students in the program. The program will deliver a curriculum that focuses on aeronautical, aviation, and agricultural components in the elementary classrooms for grades 4- 5. Current teachers will be given the curriculum, as the pre-service teachers (WKU undergraduate students) and principal investigator deliver the curriculum with the room teachers in a total team effort. After students begin the curriculum, guest speakers from all of three concept areas will be brought into the classroom to bring together the curriculum and their real world experiences. There will be four guest speakers per week, who will have experience in aeronautics and engineering and/or engineering, aviation and flight and/or agricultural flying experience. Once the connection for these two portions of the program have been met, the students will begin the modeling activity to build a model rocket that will be launched at the end of the activity.

The Scleral Ossicles of Teleosts and Tetrapods: Convergent Evolution or Cryptic Homology?

Principal Investigator: Kelly E. O’Quin
Institution: Centre College

REG Award

A major goal of genetics research is to link genotype and phenotype, especially within the context of convergent evolution. Perhaps no example of this phenomenon is as dramatic as the evolution of the animal eye, which exhibits numerous structural and functional differences between vertebrates and invertebrates, yet retains molecular signatures of homology. The goal of this proposal is to examine this issue in the context of the scleral ossicles of tetrapods and teleost fish. Scleral ossicles are small bones found within the eyes of many teleost fishes as well as amphibians and reptiles (tetrapods). Tetrapods and teleosts differ in numerous aspects of scleral ossicle number, organization, and even mineralization, suggesting that they have evolved convergently; however, no study has yet examined the molecular basis of this trait in both groups. If the scleral ossicles of these two groups do share a homologous molecular basis, then the same genes should be expressed during scleral ossification in both tetrapods and teleosts, and the manipulation of these genes should impact scleral ossicle formation in both groups. This proposal will tests these two predications by examining the expression of several candidate genes responsible for tetrapod sclera ossicle formation in a model teleost fish species, the Mexican tetra (Astyanax mexicanus).

Fabrication of Advanced Nano-Micron-Structured Transition Metal Oxide/ Sulfide Electrodes for Asymmetric Supercapacitor

Principal Investigator: Yan Cao
Institution: Western Kentucky University

REG Award

Specific project objectives are: 1) To fabricate hollow nano/micron-structured high crystalline multiply- metallic sulfides using anion exchange reactions as the specific synthesis strategies; 2) To explore manipulation approaches of nano/micron-structures and the correlate scales of synthesized materials to their physiochemical properties and electrochemical performances; 3) To realize the in-situ UV-VIS, FTIR and Raman studies during charging/discharging process of synthesized electrode materials.

Engineered Nanocomposite Material Properties through Embedding of Smaller Nanoparticles in a Polymer Matrix

Principal Investigator: Sanju Gupta
Institution: Western Kentucky University

REG Award

Polymer-based nanocomposites have captured increasing interest for a wide range of applications including photovoltaics, catalysis, optics, and renewable energy due to tailored properties, lightweight and cost. While recent experiments and computational simulations revealed the macroscopic properties are governed by mesoscale structure and interfacial layer dynamics due to the interactions between the polymer matrix (host) and nanoparticle reinforcements (guest), a clear fundamental understanding is yet to be achieved. Moreover, ‘forward’ engineered polymer-nanoparticle composites targeting specific applications often require higher volumetric density and better dispersions remains a challenging task. The project focuses on developing polymer nanocomposites engineered to minimize dielectric losses and investigating structure and dynamics of interfacial layer to predict macroscale properties.

Integrated Modeling and Experimental Studies of Quantum Nanoislands: Growth, Morphology, and Coarsening

Principal Investigator: Mikhail Khenner, Vladimir Dobrokhotov
Institution: Western Kentucky University

REG Award

This project aims to integrate modeling and experimental studies of nanoscale metal islands that can spontaneously form and self-organize on the surfaces of metal films in the course of a two-stage (low-temperature deposition+slow annealing) film growth. This special growth mode results in distinct “magic” islands that have flat tops, steep edges, and strongly preferred heights – all the features that are useful in many present and fu- ture applications in nanoscience and nanotechnology. The main objective is to develop a comprehensive state-of-the-art model and computer code. Our model will be used to study and predict growth, morphology, and coarsening of quantum nanoislands; data from the experiments will serve the purpose of informing the model construction and tuning. The final model will allow predictions for many sets of process and material parameters that are difficult to explore experimentally due to time and cost limitations.

Heterodinuclear Metal-Organic Framework Materials as Photocatalysts for Reduction of Carbon Dioxide to Fuels

Principal Investigator: Bangbo Yan
Institution: Western Kentucky University

REG Award

The objective of this project is to study the self-assembly of porous coordination framework materials and their photocatalytic reduction of carbon dioxide to fuels. The new porous coordination framework materials consist of a complex photosensitizer center and a catalytic metal center. The investigation on their crystal structures, electrochemical behavior, electronic structures, and excited state properties will provide deep insights into the photocatalytic mechanism of the new class of materials. The funding is essential for original research and student education activities, which include: (1) inorganic chemistry: the synthesis of coordination complex framework compounds, (2) structural chemistry: crystal structure determination with CCD X-ray diffractometer, (3) physical chemistry: electronic structure study using electronic absorption spectroscopy, steady-state and time-resolved luminescence spectroscopy, and (4) photocatalysis the photocatalytic activities of the new materials for carbon dioxide reduction reactions.

Undergraduate Student Centered Research and Education: Investigation into One- dimensional 3d-4d Metal Coordination Polymers as Photocatalysts

Principal Investigator: Bangbo Yan
Institution: Western Kentucky University

RSP Award

This research project will uniquely create a research environment for undergraduate research and education with the following objectives: 1) to synthesize one-dimensional 3d-4d metal coordination polymer materials, 2) to characterize and study these materials using modern instrumentation, and 3) to design and carry out catalytic experiments of these materials to understand the cutting-edge technologies of renewable solar energy harvestings. Western Kentucky University (WKU) is a primarily undergraduate institution. Its students are from very diverse socio-economic backgrounds. Many are the first person in the immediate family to attend college, some from the poorest parts of the United States (Appalachia). To retain them is challenging, especially in STEM disciplines as these students do not view science as a career option. In this context, hands-on experiences in research environments often attract and retain students, and taking part in cutting-edge research can convince them to think of science as a career.

Pollen and Fungal Spores in Holocene Terrace Deposits: Evidence for Ecosystem Change Following the Medieval Warm Period

Principal Investigator: Jennifer M.K. O’Keefe
Institution: Morehead State University

RSP Award

We propose to produce a data set elucidating fungal and plant communities and the environmental dynamics under which they grew for a very important portion of the Late Holocene: the roughly 600-year span from the end of the Medieval Warm Period, through the Little Ice Age, into the modern period. This time of geologically-rapid climate changes has not been well-studied from the standpoint of fungal ecology; indeed, this project will permit the first northern-southern hemisphere comparison of its type. We propose to study fungal palynomorphs from Holocene sediments in Kentucky, and compare their distribution relative to changing plant ecosystems and climate to similar records Dr. Nuñez-Otaño has generated for the Entre Ríos province in Argentina. While climatically similar, the two settings do contain different plant groups, and we want to know if fungal community structure during this time is driven by plant and animal associations or by climate. The comparative study we propose will allow us to make this determination. Palynology will be completed using a modification of the Schols et al. (2004) enzymatic technique (O’Keefe and Wymer, 2017) coupled with heavy density separation. Paleoecology will be determined through statistical analyses of the resultant data. Paleoclimatology will be determined through the nearest-living-relative method for palynomorphs and also through relative distribution of carbon isotopic ratios. The combination of these methods provides a more accurate representation of paleoclimate than either do alone.

Using Pyrolysis-Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry to Model, Understand and Improve the Thermal Conversion of Lignocellulosic Biomass to Fuel

Principal Investigator: Mark Crocker
Institution: University of Kentucky

RSP Award

Thermal treatments are typically applied to lignocellulosic biomass in order to render it a better energy feedstock. However, prior to being thermally treated, lignocellulosic biomass is often preprocessed by oxidative methods, which alter the properties of the biomass as well as its behavior during thermal treatments. In order to properly integrate these processes, it is important to understand the effect of oxidative pretreatments on the properties of biomass and on its behavior during subsequent thermal treatments. Obtaining this fundamental understanding represents the ultimate goal of this project.

This project will have all the positive societal impacts inherent to biofuels research, including furthering the technology necessary to sustain green jobs. In addition, this work will help satisfy the growing demand for highly skilled scientists and engineers in the renewable energy sector by providing a student with hands-on experience in the field of biomass conversion to fuels.

Sex Differences in Gene Control of Cardiac Fibrosis

Principal Investigator: Rebekah Waikel
Institution: Eastern Kentucky University

RSP Award

Sex-specific pathophysiologic differences in heart failure are well documented. For example, women are more likely than men to develop Heart Failure with Preserved Ejection Fraction (formally known as diastolic heart failure). If scientists can discover the molecular basis for these effects, it may be possible to improve on current therapies by targeting different pathways within men and women.

This project seeks to advance the field by identifying the regulatory mechanisms that underpin sex differences in human heart failure. The overarching hypothesis is that sex-specific gene regulation leads to increased collagen content and fibrosis in males with particularly high levels of fibrosis in the mid-transmural region of the left ventricular free wall.

Library Strategy for Determining Post-Translational Medication Specificity

Principal Investigator: Luke Bradley
Institution: University of Kentucky

RSP Award

While combinatorial libraries have been utilized as powerful technology for the development of novel protein specificity, post-translational modifications, which nature uses to alter protein activity, are overlooked. To incorporate these regulatory elements into protein combinatorial libraries, we previously developed a bacterial co-expression system, utilizing calmodulin methyltransferase (CaM KMT) as a model system, to completely trimethylate a diverse protein library of the calmodulin (CaM) central linker region. To guide future library designs and applications of this technology, it is necessary to gain a better understand the binding specificity of CaM KMT. We propose to construct and characterize 42 different mutations, using a library assembly approach, designed to alter/disrupt the charges around the CaM KMT target and solvent- accessible residue, Lysine-115. Collectively, these data and ongoing studies will identify the putative CaM KMT recognition sequence for identifying other potential cellular targets of this enzyme, as well as a tool for future library designs.

High Value Carotenoids from Biorefinery Waste Streams

Principal Investigator: Jian Shi
Institution: University of Kentucky

RSP Award

Antioxidants are a class of substances that suppress oxidation and protect the cell from damage caused by free radicals. Antioxidant compounds, such as carotenoids, have wide applications towards food, cosmetic, pharmaceutical and agricultural industry and the fast-growing demand for natural carotenoids is fostering a multi-billion-dollar market. Producing carotenoid from the waste stream of renewable lignocellulosic biomass by naturally occurring microbes offers an environmentally friendly and sustainable solution to the chemically synthesized carotenoids. In this study, we will explore the feasibility of using the underutilized biorefinery waste streams to produce high-value carotenoids such as β-carotene and astaxanthin. The specific objectives are to: 1) Prepare and characterize the two waste streams from dilute acid and alkali pretreatment of corn stover; 2) Investigate cultivation conditions for microbial growth and heterotrophic carotenoid production using Blakeslea trispora and Xanthophyllomyces dendrorhous; 3) Analyze and estimate the cost of carotenoid production under optimized conditions. Tapping valuable products, i.e. carotenoids, from the biorefinery waste streams will not only create extra revenue for the biofuels industry but also help to mitigate the adverse environmental impact.

Membrane Permeable Fluorescent Sensors for Lipid Messengers

Principal Investigator: Kasey Clear
Institution: Murray State University

RSS Award

The requested funds will support Professor Kasey Clear of the Department of Chemistry at Murray State University to synthesize and study fluorescent sensors that detect a class of lipids which plant and animal cells use as chemical messengers. Members of this class of lipids (the phosphatidylinositols, or PIPn) are also involved in the development of a number of diseases in animals and plants. There is currently a need for chemical tools that can readily enter cells and show the location of these lipid messengers in cells and shed light on their interactions with other biological molecules. As a first step in meeting this need, Professor Clear will conduct fundamental studies on the interaction of fluorescent synthetic receptors with the target lipids in cell membrane mimics (liposomes). His studies aim to better understand the receptor features that promote selective recognition of PIPn as well as which features lead to optimal fluorescent response. Due to the variety of techniques used in the project (synthetic organic, instrumental, and biophysical), the proposed work is excellent research training for undergraduate researchers at Murray State University. Sensing of the PIPn lipids will be carried out using fluorescent sensors that consist of two linked parts, 1) a membrane permeable synthetic receptor designed to selectively recognize and bind to the PIPn headgroup on the lipid and 2) an environment sensitive fluorescent dye that changes fluorescence properties when it is brought to the membrane surface through the lipid-receptor interaction. The synthetic receptors will contain both an anionic recognition group and a boronic acid group to interact with the phosphate group and diol group, respectively, on the PIPn lipid. Aim 1 will synthesize a new sensor consisting of a known synthetic receptor for phosphatidylinositol lipids linked to an environment-sensitive fluorescent dye. The effect of dye structure, dye attachment point, and linker length on lipid binding, selectivity, and membrane permeability will be studied in liposomes. Aim 2 will optimize chemistry to synthesize a series of sensors containing new receptor designs also linked to an environmentally sensitive fluorophore. These receptors will contain a boronic acid group, but will differ by the choice of anion recognition group. For these systems the effect of anion recognition group on affinity, selectivity, and membrane permeability will be studied in liposome systems.

One Pot 1,3-Amino Alcohol Synthesis via a Hydrogen Borrowing Strategy

Principal Investigator: Rachel Whittaker
Institution: Murray State University

RSS Award

The purpose of the proposed work is to build a pulsed laser deposition (PLD) system integrated with reflection of high electron energy diffraction (RHEED) at WKU. PLD is a high performance versatile thin film deposition technique which allows efficient deposition of complex materials. The proposed system will be used to study thin film deposition of complex material, heat transportation of nanoscale thin films by time resolved x-ray diffraction, surface modification of semiconductors, laser imprinting, and optical dynamical discrimination experiments.

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