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Monday, May 16, 2022

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Chemistry professors receive more than $200,000 in grants

Two University of Richmond chemistry professors have received more than $200,000 in grant money to fund their research projects this year.

Chemistry professor Kristine Nolin received $10,000 from the Thomas F. Jeffress and Kate Miller Jeffress Memorial Trust as a renewal for her research project, "Development of New Desymmetrization Reactions: Catalytic Additions to Electron Deficient Cyclopanes."

The Jeffress Memorial Trust awards grant money for research projects at Virginia schools. Nolin received $20,000 in grant money last year for her research project.

The renewal will fund her salary over the summer as well as the salary for one undergraduate student, freshman Allan Peng. The leftover funding from last year will pay for materials and equipment.

Chemistry professor Wade Downey also received a grant from the Jeffress Memorial Trust, totaling $20,000, for his research, "Reaction Acceleration, Mediation and Catalysis by In Situ Silylation."

The Jeffress grant runs through the calendar year of 2011 and will pay for Downey's salary over the summer and the salaries of junior Christina Vivelo and sophomore Rohina Sediqui during their research session with Downey.

Vivelo, a junior biochemistry major who has been working with Downey on his research since last summer, said that working in the lab was an eye-opener and that she always learned something new.

Downey was also recently awarded a $180,000 research grant from the National Science Foundation. Of the 40,000 research proposals for education, research and training projects the NSF receives, only about 11,000 are funded, according to the NSF website.

Downey began his research project when he first started teaching at Richmond in fall 2005. Students Miles Johnson and Brian Mahoney, who graduated in 2009, were a big part of the process and their results were what Downey reported to the grant agencies.

Downey said that the research involved studying individual chemical reactions that could be applied in a lot of different situations, including the pharmaceutical industry.

"The impact of that [research] down the line is we're hoping that the methods we develop can be used to someday make drugs or drug candidates that no one else has been able to make before or find a way to make existing drugs faster or cheaper than they're being made now," Downey said.

Nolin's research project involves making complexes called catalysts that allow a reaction to happen that normally would not.

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These catalysts can be used to make pharmaceuticals or can be used to make polymers in the materials industry, and the goal is to do it in a way to minimize waste.

Although Nolin first formulated the idea before she started teaching at Richmond, all of the research has taken place at the school.

Both professors said they were relieved when they found out they had received the grants.

Nolin said that although the university had been great in supplying a lot of funding, the professors stressed over making sure they had money to pay for students to be in the lab.

"I was excited to be able to fund another student," Nolin said. "That's the most important thing for me right now is to make sure that I have money to bring students into the lab."

Vivelo said Downey wrote the whole lab an e-mail when he received the NSF grant, saying that he was stunned, but that they were all set to go.

"He told me he was shocked himself," Vivelo said.

Nolin said the grant application process was nerve-wracking and it took perseverance.

"I think that with the funding levels being so low right now, you know you try your best," Nolin said. "You expect almost not to get it in a way and then when you do, it's just that much richer of an experience."

With reference to the NSF grant, Downey said the motto was to keep trying and eventually something good would happen.

"Lots of people with great ideas get turned down every year and it's really humbling to know that I've been fortunate enough to receive one this time around, but I've been denied many times in the past," Downey said.

In order to apply for the grant, a professor must write a grant proposal. Downey said his proposal was about 10 pages and it took about two months to write.

The bulk of the work required Downey and his students to delve into primary literature to find out what scientific advances other people were making, Downey said.

Downey's proposals were slight variations on each other and he also had to supply a curriculum vitae and a budget detailing what he would spend the money on if he received the grant.

For Nolin's renewal, she had to submit a progress report to let the funding agency know how far her research had gone and where it would go based on what she learned the previous year.

The chemistry department has had success, Downey said, stressing that there was a balance between teaching in the classroom and teaching the same students in the research labs to make new discoveries themselves.

"For a school this size that caters almost exclusively to undergraduates, our research productivity is really outstanding. It's one of the best in the nation," Downey said. "And that's part of the reason faculty are actually attracted to come here and be professors."

The chemistry faculty has received more than $2.5 million in grants to fund undergraduate research during the past five years.

The faculty's success was driven by the students, Downey said.

"If we were working alone, we'd never get much of anything done on the research front. Students really carry us," Downey said. "So any awards that I get along the way are really a reflection of the students I've had the past five years and the students I have now"

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