A new major research grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to the Nuclear Group at Hope College continues three decades of support from the agency, a long-time run which if not unique is at the very least rare, reflecting the quality of the work being conducted.
The Nuclear Group has received more than $3 million from the NSF since garnering its first grant in 1986, in addition to receiving funding from other sources. The latest NSF award is for $311,507 and will provide support through May 2019.
The group is an interdisciplinary collaboration between the college’s chemistry and physics programs. Across the past three years, the most recent grant period, it has had 39 articles published in professional journals, up from 34 during the previous three years. Among the landmark results is development of a rapid screening test to detect the presence of per- and polyflourinated compounds (PFCs) in consumer products ranging from food packaging to outdoor clothing to cookware.
“Everything that we will do here is new science,” said Dr. Paul De Young, who is the Kenneth G. Herrick Professor of Physics at Hope and co-leads the group with chemist and environmental scientist Dr. Graham Peaslee. “There are 39 publications because we’re involved at a significant level in making new discoveries and obtaining significant results.”
“There’s a lot of competition for these grants, and that means that we’re doing something right,” said Peaslee, who is the Elmer E. Hartgerink Professor of Chemistry and a professor of geology/environmental science. “It’s a combination of the science—the basic science and the applied science—and the students that we train through participation in original research.”
Hope’s research tools include a Pelletron particle accelerator, one of only about 60 in the United States. The instrument, located in the Hope Ion Beam Analysis Laboratory (HIBAL), was acquired by Peaslee with an NSF grant in 2004, and succeeded the Van de Graaff accelerator the college had operated for the preceding 30 years.
Through the new award, the Nuclear Group will continue to explore and refine applications for rapid materials testing with an emphasis on considering the environmental impact of the compounds that are involved. Peaslee noted that PFCs, for example, are now found in the environment and bioaccumulate—they’ve even been found in polar bear blood.
The group will also continue its longstanding relationship with the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL) based at Michigan State University. The team will continue studying neutron-rich, unstable nuclei with the NSCL’s Modular Neutron Array (MoNA) and Large area multi-Institutional Scintillation Array (LISA). Through the new award, the Nuclear Group will also work with the NSCL’s Summing Nal (SuN) group on nuclear physics questions with astrophysics importance, such as understanding the reactions that take place within supernovas.
About a dozen students conduct the research collaboratively with DeYoung and Peaslee, including both full-time during several weeks each summer and part-time across the school year. The NSF grant will provide summer stipends for four of the students each year.
Collaborative student-faculty research has been a priority in the natural and applied sciences at Hope for more than 50 years. The hands-on learning, with its emphasis on questions with no pre-established answers, provides lessons that the two professors note can’t be taught by a textbook or even in a classroom laboratory—and also offers the opportunity for students to become inspired through the process of discovery. Students often even serve as lead authors on the research articles subsequently published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.