posted October 12, 2009

Hope-Led Consortium Receives NSF Grant

With a namesake nod to a Renaissance painting by a famous artist-scientist, a major new equipment grant to Hope College will enable a new generation of student researchers to engage in cutting-edge investigations themselves.

Hope is the lead institution of a nine-school consortium that is sharing $1.2 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) - of which Hope gets $203,894--to build a new "Large-area multi-Institutional Scintillator Array" (LISA), a neutron detector that will be used in the study of exotic nuclei.  The instrument will be housed at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL) at Michigan State University, a facility that already hosts another neutron detector developed through a consortium that also includes Hope and was supported by a previous NSF grant.

That earlier detector is known as "MoNA," for Modular Neutron Array.  Thus the pair of instruments together will become, pun intended, MoNA-LISA, sharing in combination the name of Leonardo DaVinci's best-known painting.

It's an appropriate linkage, given that DaVinci was an inventor and researcher as well as an artist, since LISA will be - as MoNA has been - used by undergraduate students participating in original research projects that lead to new discoveries, according to Dr. Paul DeYoung, who is the Kenneth G. Herrick Professor of Physics and chairperson of the department at Hope.

DeYoung noted that the new instrument reflects and will help continue the college's decades-long practice of involving students in ground-breaking science - with students not simply parroting others' work as an exercise, but instead making true discoveries.

Undergraduates at each of the nine participating institutions will first help construct the components of the new array, which will then be shipped to MichiganStateUniversity for assembly and made operational by the fall of 2010.

Highly-precise, LISA will measure unstable, neutron-rich, light nuclei, which have designations like "Lithium 13" and "Oxygen 24."

"These things don't hang around very long," DeYoung said.  "They last about one billionth of a billionth of a second."

"Within the field of science, the research will lead to a better understanding of events like supernova and the creation of heavy elements during such explosions," he said.

DeYoung anticipates that MoNA and LISA will become even more important in the next six to 10 years, when the major new federally funded "Facility for Rare Isotope Beams" (FRIB) is likely to be completed.  "The combination of MoNA and LISA could be a day-one neutron-detection device for use with FRIB," he said.

The undergraduates who will be working with MoNA and LISA in the meantime, he noted, will themselves be a potential resource for making the most of FRIB.  "The students working on this now will be finishing their Ph.D.s and becoming part of the scientific work force just as FRIB comes on-line," he said.

The NSF grant for LISA has been funded through the federal economic stimulus package, the "American Recovery and Reinvestment Act" (ARRA) of 2009.  In addition to Hope, the schools participating in the LISA consortium are Central Michigan University, Concordia College, Gettysburg College, Indiana University South Bend, Ohio Wesleyan, Rhodes College, Wabash College and Westmont College.