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Kim Halsey with graduate student taking samples from a river

New grants to advance science that benefits humankind

By Cari Longman
Photo by Hannah O'Leary
Microbiologist Kim Halsey (left) and postdoc Cleo Davie-Martin collect samples from a river. Halsey is one of four faculty members who received College of Science Research and Innovation Seed (SciRIS-II) awards. She will study the potential to detect toxic algae blooms in freshwater and marine ecosystems.   

How can we better understand how devastating plant diseases are spread? Is there a better statistical model to predict HIV prevalence in a city? Is there a way we can detect toxic algae blooms in freshwater and marine ecosystems before they occur? And of the hundreds of thousands of different metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) in the world, how can we can better find the ones that are most useful for storing and separating gases, like CO2 from industrial plants?

Curiosity is critical for discovery. Asking the questions above led five faculty members to receive College of Science Research and Innovation Seed (SciRIS-II) and Betty Wang Discovery Fund awards this February to pursue answers over the course of the next year. Their proposals all showed transformative potential and progress toward new frontiers of science and aimed to strengthen collaboration with external research partners. Below is more detail about each of their proposals. 

Mathematics Professor Vrushali Bokil was awarded $12,500 to use modeling techniques to understand the spread and control of plant diseases caused by coinfecting viruses. She will focus on Maize Lethal Necrosis (MLN), an emerging disease in Kenya and other parts of Africa that is caused by coinfecting viruses and spread by insects called Thrips, as a test case. Her team’s goals are to use stochastic models and optimal control theory to understand the mechanisms that drive patterns of coinfection in plant populations and effective techniques for controlling the spread of disease in crops and natural populations. 

In collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Statistics Assistant Professor Katherine McLaughlin received $10,000 to explore the use of new statistical methodologies to estimate the number of people who inject drugs in metropolitan areas. The research project, supported by the privately-funded Disease Mechanism & Prevention Fund at the OSU Foundation, has a goal of   refining current methods to produce improved population-level demographic, behavioral, disease prevalence and population size estimations. This will aid the CDC in their efforts to contain or slow the rate of HIV in metropolitan areas across the U.S. 

Microbiologist Kimberly Halsey was awarded $10,000 to examine the potential for real-time, automated volatile organic compound (VOC) detection as early-warning signals of toxic harmful algal blooms (HABs) in freshwater and marine ecosystems. HABs are increasing in intensity and severity due to climate change and nutrient loading from agriculture and other human-related activities. Some HABs can become toxic to humans and animals. Halsey will use data integration to merge aquatic microbiome data with environmental properties and VOC signatures to identify determinants and trajectory of the annual toxic HAB at Upper Klamath Lake, Oregon. 

Physicist David Roundy was also awarded $10,000 to develop new flat histogram Monte Carlo molecular simulation methods to accelerate the discovery of metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) for applications in storing and separating gases. MOFs are crystalline materials that harbor nano-sized pores that have the potential to be used in a variety of clean energy applications, from hydrogen and natural gas storage to capturing carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plant flues. His study aims to enable scientists to accurately predict the absorption properties of hundreds of thousands of MOFs and accelerate the rate of MOF discovery for clean energy applications. 

In addition, chemistry professors Kyriakos Stylianou and May Nyman, along with Todd Miller from the Advanced Technology and Manufacturing Institute (ATAMI), received $30,000 from the Betty Wang Discovery Fund to purchase a microwave reactor to integrate on the continuous flow reactor to accelerate the discovery and production of inorganic materials like MOFs. The Betty Wang Discovery Fund supports equipment acquisitions and laboratory infrastructure improvements to advance fundamental discoveries in science. Microwave heating has recently emerged as a powerful method for the preparation of inorganic materials at the laboratory scale, reducing synthesis time down to a few minutes without affecting the product quality or reaction yield. The new machinery will allow the team to investigate the potential of new MOFs to capture carbon in laboratory and industrial applications. 

The projects will run for one year, ending next February 2021.The SciRIS program provides funding in three stages for high impact collaborative proposals that build teams, pursue fundamental discoveries and create societal impact. The awards range from $10,000 to $125,000 for various stages of the program and are supported in part by generous alumni and friends, and grants from the U.S. Department of Defense and National Institutes of Health.