$360,000 NSF grant recognizes UNE collaboration in researching chemical compounds

March 02, 2009

 The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Jerome Mullin, Ph.D, founding chair of the University of New England Department of Chemistry, along with several southern Maine collaborators, a $360,000 research grant. 

The substantial NSF grant is for collaborative research aimed at broadening the repertoire of fluorescent chemical compounds, and involves UNE, the University of Southern Maine (USM) and St. Joseph‚Äôs College.  The molecules under investigation hold great promise for use in opto-electronic devices such as organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs) and chemical sensors.

The NSF grant grew largely from a unique and longtime collaboration between Mullin and Hank Tracy, Ph.D., at USM, which draws upon their very different but complementary training.  Tracy is a synthetic chemist with expertise in making compounds with unique fluorescent characteristics; Mullin is an analytical chemist who analyzes them for certain characteristics and behavior (also called spectroscopy).

Says Mullin, ‚ÄúIn our collaboration with USM, we have taken advantage of the different strengths and resources that our two institutions have ‚Äì in techniques, instrumentation, and faculty expertise.  Together, over 20 of our students have co-authored presentations at national meetings or peer-reviewed papers over the past 15 years.‚Äù

Student Involvement
Another unique element of the schools‚Äô research is the significant involvement of students, who work closely and regularly with faculty members to broaden their perspective.  Students have clearly defined roles and an important sense of ownership.  Adds Mullin, ‚Äú‚Ķalthough each individual student may be focused on a specific aspect of the project, they can also see where their role fits into the larger project, where the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.‚Äù

Two years ago, Mullin was invited to submit a manuscript specifically related to this project.  That article, which included several student co-authors, along with faculty coauthors from USM, was published in the peer-reviewed journal, ‚ÄúThe Journal of Inorganic and Organometallic Polymers and Materials‚Äù in 2007. 

Collaboration
While the collaboration involves occasional trips between the two schools, more commonly the chemical compounds are created at USM, then investigated at UNE, although facilities for synthesis are currently being constructed at UNE so that students can more easily take part in making the compounds. The grant funding also will allow synthesis to be carried out at St. Joseph‚Äôs College.  

Adds Mullin, ‚ÄúOur partnership over the years has enabled both schools to do work that, alone, we wouldn‚Äôt do, or would struggle to do.  Together, we are developing new chemical substances.‚Äù 

The NSF grant enables the research to expand its reach with the addition of St. Joseph’s College and additional collaborators at USM, which brings to the team specific expertise in the areas of organic and inorganic synthesis, analytical chemistry, and physical chemistry. Most importantly, a significant portion of the funding will support summer research stipends for undergraduates at the three partner institutions.

Mullin believes the existing collaboration, together with the undergraduate involvement in research, was key to the success of the NSF grant proposal, particularly in today‚Äôs tight grant market.  He says, ‚ÄúSide-by-side collaboration with my students is something I have tried to support over the years.  In my years as department chair, I tried, with the help of the UNE College of Arts and Sciences, to help create undergraduate research opportunities that did not previously exist.   It is important to have students do work that is substantial and meaningful enough for them to be listed as co-authors of presentations and publications.‚Äù