The Kentucky NSF EPSCoR Program has recently made 13 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 Investigators: Carmen Agouridis and Susan Odom
Institution: University of Kentucky

EOC Award

Funding this proposal would result in the organization and hosting of a third 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 continue 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.

2019 Math and Science Summer Camp Experience

Principal Investigator: Jose Algarin
Institution: Eastern Kentucky University

EOC Award

The proposed project will build on the success of the 2018 project and provide for second time, a five-day hands-on immersive experience in the practice of mathematics and science to rising juniors and seniors from a wide variety of Kentucky high schools. Faculty will challenge a new group of students to find solutions to real-world problems using the principles of both mathematics and science. In addition to the hands-on academic challenges, the camp will include information sessions on topics such as college academic programs in the sciences and mathematics, college application process, financial aid and scholarships, and career options.

Girls RULE–STEM Summit

Principal Investigator: Heidi Neal
Institution: University of Louisville

EOC Award

Speed School of Engineering will host a full day of sessions designed to engage self-identified girls in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) content through hands-on experiences. Parents, guardians, and leaders learn how to engage girls in STEM and receive great resources to continue STEM learning after the program ends. Located at JB Speed School of Engineering. This day long summit is designed for 3rd-12th grade students and parents; with separate tracks for elementary, middle, high school and parents. Engineering faculty, community members, female industry engineers and STEM partners will join together to provide education, hands on activities and advice to have a career in STEM. In addition, a partner track is designed to assist parents in providing support and encouragement of females looking to enter or explore the career field of STEM. This program will be at zero cost to parents and students. Partnership with Promise Zone will also be established to ensure exposure to the days event is occurring with promise zone high school students.

Quantifying Soil Carbon Sequestration Potential of Conservation Management Practices Based on a Multi-scale Data Fusion Approach

Principal Investigator: Wei Ren
Institution: University of Kentucky

RSP Award

Soil organic carbon (SOC) represents a critical driver of agricultural productivity and environmental resilience.Enhancing soil carbon sequestration through land management practices has been identified as a potential viable means to achieve climate mitigationand meanwhile ensure food security and environmental sustainability. However, SOC dynamics are affected by multiple influencing factors, involving both human activities (e.g. land use and management practices) and natural processes(e.g. climate change); these influencing factors tightly couple and interact, resulting in high uncertainties intheestimation ofagricultural soil carbon sequestration. The underlyingmechanisms responsible for the impacts of land use andmanagement practices and their relationship with highly heterogeneous climate and soil conditions are far from clear. To fill this knowledge gap, in this study, we proposed to use a multi-scale data fusion approachto:1) quantify the effects of two emergingconservation management practices (i.e., biochar and cover crop) on changes in SOC; 2) identify environmental determinants of changes in SOC under these management practices; and 3) generate time-series global cropland distribution datasetsby hybridizing existing satellite-based maps and inventory data.

Big Bone Lick: Local and Regional Ecosystem Change from the Pleistocene to early Holocene

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

RSP Award

Big Bone Lick: local and regional ecosystem change from the Pleistocene to early Holocene represents an undergraduate-led, undergraduate- and faculty- mentored palynological examination of sedimentary units deposited during the past ±23,000 years before present in north-central Kentucky. The objectives are to answer six questions remaining following a preliminary study completed in May 2017: 1) What plants occurred in and surrounding the Big Bone Lick depocenter through time, especially through time periods skipped in the initial study?2) Does palynomorph preservation change correlate with lithological change?3) Does reworked palynomorph content change from bottom to top in the cores?4)Are there lateral variation in palynomorphs distribution in addition to vertical variations?5)What temperature ranges are recorded by the palynomorphs?6)Can we use existing methods and caveats to estimate megaherbivore density? An undergraduate researcher will lead a team of students that includes two Morehead State University Craft Academy for Excellence in Science and Mathematics seniors, both female, to collect samples from and characterize botanical remains contained in sediments from five cores on loan from the Kentucky Geological Survey. Palynology will be completed using a modification of the O’Keefe and Wymer (2017) enzymatic technique coupled with heavy density separation. Paleoecology will be determined through cluster analysis of the resultant data, as well as contextually from the botanical, especially fungal and other non-pollen palynomorph, remains. Paleoclimatology will be determined through the nearest-living-relative method for palynomorphs.

Synthesis of Electron-Deficient Tetracenes as an Effort to Access Renewable Energy

Principal Investigator: Mary Robert Garrett
Institution: Berea College

RSP Award

This project will encompass the sustainable production of electron-deficient tetracenes, four-ringed, polyaromatic compounds, which have demonstrated promise as thermoelectric (TE) materials. TE materials allow for the direct heat-to-electrical energy conversion and are a clever development that could be incorporated into almost all aspects of power generation and utilization. An array of electron-rich tetracenes have been successfully synthesized in an economical, environmentally-friendly, high-yielding manner; however, products with halogens and other electron-withdrawing groups (EWGs have been elusive predominately providing monoclosure to the three-ring structure from the previously obtained dial. An alternative approach to tetracenes is proposed that would lend itself to electron-deficient substrates. For this project, students will attempt to synthesize electron-deficient tetracenes from the three previously published steps and continues with purification-free steps.

Library Strategy for Determining Post-Translational Medication Specificity

Principal Investigator: B. Blairanne Williams
Institution: Western Kentucky University

RSP Award

The purpose of this proposal is to integrate scientific education and skills into an experience with tangible effects on the life of an adult learner at Western Kentucky University. The scientific experience will consist of the following objectives: 1) Examine the toxicity of novel platinum compounds structurally similar to FDA approved chemotherapeutics in cellular models of mammalian cancer using the MTT assay to determine the viability of the cells after exposure to the toxicants, and 2) Determine intracellular concentrations of platinum after exposure to the toxicants by atomic absorption assay to ensure the compounds are accumulated similarly across multiple cell lines. The scientific objectives will be integrated with the training purpose by providing this underrepresented student hands-on experiences in the research lab, development of written and oral presentation skills, individual support from the PI, and a community of peers within the laboratory.

Production of Lipo-chitooligosaccharides from Bradyrhizobium japocicum Grown on Food Waste

Principal Investigator: Jian Shi
Institution: University of Kentucky

RSP Award

Lipo-chitooligosaccharides (LCOs) are the key signal molecules produced by rhizobial bacteria to initiate plant symbiotic interactions like inducing the formation of nitrogen-fixing roots in legumes. Studies show that LCOs promote plant growth when applied to non-legumes as well. This proves that LCOs have potential to be used as crop yielding enhancers. LCOs have been applied as an environmentally safe, friendly and sustainable replacement to agrochemicals and synthetic fertilizers. The vast amount of food waste is a problematic waste stream however contains essential nutrients needed by the naturally occurring LCO producing rhizobial bacterium, Bradyrhizobium japonicum. This project aims to use food waste to produces LCOs by solid state cultivation of B.japonicum. Specific objectives are to: 1) Optimize B.japocicum growth on food waste; 2) Quantify the LCO yields; 3) Test the feasibility of direct pelletization of post-fermentation solids; and 4) Test pellets as possible soil amendment for tomato growth.

An Alternating Current Electrokinetics Based Low-cost Wireless Sensing Platform for Water Quality Monitoring in the Distribution Network

Principal Investigator: Cheng Cheng
Institution: Morehead State University

RSS Award

Clean and reliable water is critical for the health and well-being of all humans. Due to intensive budget requirements, increasingly stringent regulations and ageing infrastructure, water utilities are facing new challenges in their real-time operation. While considerable effort has been applied to monitor drinking water quality, there is no universal monitor for water quality monitoring and rapid contaminant detection. Therefore, this project proposes to monitor multiple parameters of in-pipe water quality in the distribution network, using low-cost, low-maintenance sensors (both newly-developed with new capability and commercially available) integrated with a wireless communication network. The newly-developed alternating current electrokinetics (ACEK) based capacitive sensor takes advantage of dielectrophoresis (DEP) effect for manipulation and enrichment of bioparticles (such as broad-spectrum bacteria, microparticles, etc.). By integrating commercially available pH sensor, temperature sensor, etc. together with the developed ACEK based capacitive sensor, the entire established sensing platform will realize low-cost and real time monitoring of water quality.

Gold Nanoparticles as Theranostic Vehicles and Diagnostic Tools

Principal Investigator: Daniel Scott
Institution: Centre College

RSS Award

This project will examine applications of gold nanoparticles (AuNPs) as tunable and remotely activated delivery vehicles, and, in combination with iron oxide nanoparticles (IONPs), as potential sensing systems capable of point-of-care and remote application

Asymmetric Iron and Zinc Catalysis for Stereoselective Carbene Transfers

Principal Investigator: Yongming Deng
Institution: Western Kentucky University

RSS Award

The objective of this proposed research is to develop new asymmetric iron and zinc catalysis for highly stereoselective carbene transfer reactions to deliver a cost-effective and environmentally benign catalysts system and synthetic methodology for the synthesis of enantiopure chiral compounds and molecular complexity. A series of chiral bis(imino) pyridine-based iron and zinc catalysts with tunable electronic, steric, and chiral environments will be designed and synthesized. They will be used for asymmetric carbene transfer reactions as replacements for the precious metal elements commonly in use. Dr. Deng will systemically investigate the catalytic activity and selectivity of chiral iron catalyst in cyclopropanation reaction to achieve high efficiency and enantioselectivity. He will also apply the chiral zinc catalysts in the oxygen-hydrogen bond insertion reaction to reveal the structure-activity/selectivity relationships and to achieve the asymmetric synthesis of functionalized enantioenriched α-alkoxy esters.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Cooperative Agreement No. 1355438.

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