Materials institute successfully competes for research funding
By Steven Schultz
Princeton NJ -- Following a long and highly competitive selection process, the Princeton Materials Institute has won a $17.4 million federal grant for wide-ranging research in electronics, nanotechnology, biology and other areas.
"This renewal was critical for us," said Ravindra Bhatt, professor of electrical engineering and director of the Princeton MRSEC. The National Science Foundation is particularly stringent in judging past performance and proposed research of schools that have already received two MRSEC grants, Bhatt said. Indeed, some universities lost their funding entirely and others were dealt significant cuts in the competition.
With $2.9 million per year, Princeton's grant is up slightly and is the fifth largest of the 29 materials research centers nationwide. "Given the size of Princeton, we are very fortunate to have such a large MRSEC," said Bhatt, who attributed the proposal's success to the high quality and collaborative culture of Princeton faculty, as well as the cohesiveness of the final proposal. "Most of the other universities with large MRSECs are much bigger than we are and have a longer history of materials science research on their campuses."
Involving 40 faculty members in six departments, the MRSEC is the largest single grant at Princeton, said Bhatt. Participating faculty are from chemistry, physics, molecular biology, electrical engineering, chemical engineering and mechanical and aerospace engineering. Bhatt said that MRSECs are designed to support highly interdisciplinary materials research that could not be easily funded by conventional targeted or single-investigator grants.
Three main projects
The grant funds an organization within the Princeton Materials Institute called the Princeton Center for Complex Materials. It supports three main projects:
· Guided self-assembly -- an effort to understand how polymers and other materials can be induced to form minute, ordered patterns, which could be useful in future electronic, optical and mechanical devices. The group is led by Paul Chaikin of physics and Dudley Saville of chemical engineering.
· Correlated electronic materials -- fundamental research into novel semiconductors, superconductors and other electronic materials, and an improved understanding of the quantum-level physics that give these materials their special properties. Bob Cava of chemistry and Phuan Ong of physics lead the project.
· Adhesion and contact in nano-structures -- a project, led by Kyle Vanderlick of chemical engineering and David Srolovitz of mechanical and aerospace engineering, to study the properties and causes of failure of microscopically small mechanical devices such as the tiny switches used in telecommunications networks.
The grant also funds two smaller projects. One, led by Jean Schwarz-bauer of molecular biology, is investigating how muscle cells and other biological materials organize themselves into the body's many structures such as bone or tissue. The other, led by Antoine Kahn of electrical engineering, is dedicated to understanding new oxide-based materials used in transistors and similar solid state devices. In addition, the grant provides unrestricted funds that a committee of faculty members can give out to promising projects as they arise. Currently, four such "seed" projects exist.
Two years of competition
Arriving at the list of projects included in the Princeton proposal took more than two years of intense internal and external competition and review. The process started in 2000 when money from the previous MRSEC was used to help several research groups develop project proposals. By May 2000, 12 groups submitted proposals. An internal advisory committee reviewed them and narrowed the list to six.
Bhatt then lined up about 20 outside experts who, by summer 2001, helped narrow the list to four. The University submitted these to the NSF as "preproposals," initiating several rounds of reviews and responses, which resulted in one of the four being scaled back and restructured. Finally, the NSF called six Princeton representatives to Washington for four hours of presentations and questions before a panel of 20 leading materials scientists.
"That was May 28, 2002," said Bhatt. "I remember that day very well. It was the culmination of two and a half years of work."
One measure of Princeton's success, said Bhatt, is that projects from previous MRSEC grants have produced important results and grown enough to generate their own funding. An example is the work of Professor Stephen Forrest and colleagues who pioneered the field of organic electronics, including new technologies for flat-screen video displays that are under commercial development. That work was funded by an early MRSEC in collaboration with Princeton's Center for Photonic and Optoelectronic Materials.
Beyond scientific results, the NSF rates MRSECs on their educational outreach programs, requiring the researchers to use their expertise to improve science education outside the university. The response of Princeton faculty to this requirement has been tremedous, said Daniel Steinberg, director of education outreach for the MRSEC at the Princeton Materials Institute. All the MRSEC faculty have committed to participating in outreach and most already have devoted considerable time to it, Steinberg said.
Last year the Princeton MRSEC conducted the science component of the Princeton Prep summer program for disadvantaged local high school students, and this year will work with the Upward Bound program in Trenton. It also helps fund a program that brings students from other colleges into Princeton labs for the summer.
Perhaps most successful, said Bhatt, is the role the MRSEC-supported scientists have played in improving science lab kits that are increasingly used by elementary and middle school teachers. The kits, purchased from commercial vendors, contain experiments and demonstrations designed to promote hands-on learning and to reduce teachers' reliance on textbooks. Unfortunately, the kits often have incomplete explanations or do not function properly, said Bhatt.
"Many of the teachers are scared to test the kits because they are not scientists," said Bhatt. "If the thing doesn't work, they are not sure if the problem is with themselves or the kit." In the last year, Princeton's MRSEC researchers also developed their own electricity and magnetism kit for schools that cannot afford commercial ones and conducted a workshop in which they gave the kits, as well as training in using them, to 20 Trenton-area teachers. This work allows Princeton scientists to develop lasting relationships with local teachers and to serve as a resource as new questions arise.
That kind of service can benefit generations of students, said Steinberg. "We're getting to the core of the problem, which is how science and engineering are taught at the very earliest grades."
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