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Mathematics and Natural Sciences Faculty Earn More Than $2.4 Million of External Funding in 2018-2019

Tue, 07/02/2019 - 09:53pm | By: Jennifer Roy

Multiple faculty members from the School of Mathematics and Natural Sciences received outside funding during the 2018-2019 academic year. Their research broadens our understanding of the world around us, and many of their projects also strengthen connections between The University of Southern Mississippi and other colleges and universities as mathematics and natural sciences faculty mentor the next generation of scientists through their work.

Dr. Janet Donaldson, Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Education for the College of Arts and Sciences, commended these faculty members’ contributions to the university, stating, “Faculty in the School of Mathematics and Natural Sciences have excelled in securing funding for their research this year.”

Dr. Parthapratim Biswas, Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy, was the principal investigator (PI) for the project “NSF Summer School on Computational Modeling of Disordered Materials for Historically Black Colleges and Universities.” He received $115,459 from the National Science Foundation to support an intensive training workshop for students and faculty members from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and Minority Serving Institutions (MSI) on computational modeling of complex materials. The participants will learn many modern structural modeling techniques, widely used computer simulation methodologies, and the fundamentals of computer programming in high-level language. This project promotes collaboration between our university and HBCUs and other institutions, and the participants will be mentored after the workshop on publishing their findings.

Dr. Matthew Donahue, Assistant Professor of Organic Chemistry, received $438,000 from the National Institutes of General Medical Sciences, a branch of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He explained that prescription drugs are vital for national healthcare, and Dr. Donahue is investigating active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) to help patients access medications as quickly as possible. He is researching the stereochemistry, or spatial orientation of the atoms, of medications and its effects on the physiological properties of the APIs. By establishing new methods of creating medication with the stereochemistry of the atoms in mind, prescription drugs can be produced more efficiently and more affordably for patients. Dr. Donahue’s research focuses specifically on piperidines, which are found in the largest percentage of prescription medications that contain nitrogen. This project has a meaningful impact on biomedical research and provides organic chemistry laboratory training for graduate and undergraduate students in Mississippi.

Dr. Faqing Huang, Professor of Biochemistry, was a co-PI on a collaborative project with Dr. Yanlin Guo, Professor in the School of Biological, Environmental, and Earth Sciences and the lead principal investigator for the project. This project has been supported by two consecutive grants from the National Institutes of Health and has received $798,067 in funding for the project since 2014. Dr. Guo explained that their labs have been using embryonic stem cells (ESCs) from mice to study innate immunity in these cells. They are investigating why the interferon (IFN)-based antiviral mechanism is deficient in ESCs, and they hypothesize that it helps the ESCs to avoid cytotoxicity caused by IFN response during the development of embryos.  With Dr. Huang’s help, they are focusing on the Dicer enzyme as the sentinel enzyme to repress the IFN system, and they believe that their research will provide significant insight into the connections between ESCs, innate immunity, and normal embryonic development.

Dr. Julie Pigza, Assistant Professor of Organic Chemistry, received $626,780 from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER), and the Math and Physical Sciences (MPS) Directorate. She explained that her research group is investigating organocatalysts and ways to execute new bond-forming strategies to help transform petroleum and biomass feedstocks into value-added chemicals with less environmental waste. This project also incorporates the work of multiple graduate and undergraduate students, providing them with interdisciplinary research training through synthesis and a computational component. She also is developing a Community College Bridge Program to help STEM majors from these institutions receive support when transferring to USM.

Dr. Vijay Rangachari, Associate Professor of Biophysical Chemistry, received funding for two projects during the 2018-2019 school year. For his project “Role of Lipid-drived Oligomer strains in AD Phenotypes,” he received $308,603 annual direct costs and $671,000 total from the National Institute of Aging (NIH). He explained that in this project, he investigates the molecular underpinnings of sporadic Alzheimer disease (sAD) to open new avenues for treatment. This research is in conjunction with the Ramamoorthy lab (University of Michigan), the Hansmann lab (University of Oklahoma), and the Levites lab (University of Florida).

Dr. Rangachari’s second project, “Dynamics of surfactant -amyloid-beta protein interactions during self assembly,” received $39,000 in annual direct costs and $540,000 total from the National Science Foundation (NSF). He explained that the clumping of protein molecules through “aggregation” can create clumps called “amyloids” that might be connected to diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, but they now are found to be involved in normal cellular functions as well. This project investigates how surfactants affect the formation of amyloids using experiments, computer simulations, and mathematical analyses to understand better how they affect the body and broaden our understanding of Alzheimer’s disease. This project also provides students with new research training in data collection and interpretation of results.

For the second year in a row, Dr. Zhifu Xie, a Professor of Mathematics, and Dr. Huiqing Zhu, an Associate Professor of Mathematics, received $30,140 for a sub-award of the National Research Experience for Undergraduates Program (NREUP) from the Mathematical Association of America. They explained that the grant helps them to run a 7-weeks summer program from June 3 to July 19. The topic of this research project is “Allee Effects and Chaos in a Food Chain Model.” Five undergraduate students from multiple Mississippi universities and two additional USM Cross Scholarship recipients will be funded to investigating phenomena of a predator-prey model in the field of mathematical biology. This project supports the interest of undergraduates from underrepresented groups in careers involving mathematics.

Dr. Anna Wan, Assistant Professor of Mathematics, received $249,734.00 this year from CMI2 to enhance the Eagle Maker Hub, a 3-D printing facility. She explained, “The goal of this grant is to improve capability/infrastructure to perform small-quantity prototyping of 1) electro-mechanical systems, 2) software/app programs and 3) scaled hardware concepts using 3-D printing in the Eagle Maker Hub.” 

Dr. Bernd Schroeder, the Interim Director of the School of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, emphasized the importance of these projects to the University. “I am very pleased that the faculty’s hard work met with so much success,” he said. “The range of projects, from the highly visible Eagle Maker Hub, through the intricate details of deadly diseases, to summer research opportunities for students from the next generation of scientists, is impressive.”