posted July 24, 2013

NSF Grant Supports Ongoing Student-Faculty Nuclear Research Program

Dr. Paul DeYoung and Dr. Graham Peaslee

A new three-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) is supporting a variety of on-going student-faculty research initiatives in nuclear chemistry and nuclear physics at Hope College.

As is true with collaborative student-faculty research throughout the division of the natural and applied sciences at Hope, the college’s nuclear research program is designed not only to address specific needs and further scientific understanding but to teach students the “how” of science in ways that will help them well beyond their undergraduate years.

The $299,106 grant, which will provide funding through May 2016, has been awarded through the NSF’s “Research in Undergraduate Institutions” (RUI) program to the college’s Nuclear Group, comprised of students and faculty conducting research in nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry.

Led by physicist Dr. Paul DeYoung and chemist Dr. Graham Peaslee with about a dozen students involved each year, the group pursues multiple projects at a time, ranging from analyzing samples to more theoretical explorations.

“This grant is for everything from every-day problems such as carcinogenic chemicals in the home to the esoteric understanding of the fundamental forces of nature,” said DeYoung, who is the Kenneth G. Herrick Professor of Physics.

Specific projects, all of which have been on-going, include studying the origins of sediment in the Lake Macatawa watershed, analysis of layered automotive paints and automobile glass fragments, and luminescence studies of feldspars and carbonates.  Another effort is seeking to develop techniques to harvest isotopes of strategic and medical interest at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL) and future “Facility for Rare Isotope Beams” (FRIB)—the latter of which Hope researchers are helping design--at Michigan State University.  The team is also refining the theoretical understanding of nuclei in a project that involves the “MoNA-LISA” instrumentation developed at MSU through a consortium of colleges and universities including Hope.  Research tools available at Hope include a Pelletron particle accelerator and attached nuclear microprobe facility as well as a low-background gamma-ray spectrometry facility. 

The research itself is productive.  In the past three years alone, the group has had 34 publications and made dozens of conference presentations.  “Which is remarkable at any institution, let alone a primarily undergraduate institution,” said Peaslee, who is the Elmer E. Hartgerink Professor of Chemistry and a professor of geology/environmental science.

DeYoung and Peaslee are especially committed, however, to the program’s role as part of the learning experience at Hope, where collaborative student-faculty research has been a priority in the natural and applied sciences 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.

“Most of the students won’t continue in this specific area, but they develop skill sets that they’ll use in solving other problems in whatever field they choose,” Peaslee said.

“We meet with them, but the students do the research,” he said.  “When the student walks in and shows you a data plot that you’ve never seen before and asks, ‘Is this what we’re looking for?’—that’s a sweet moment.”

In addition to the current NSF grant, the Nuclear Group’s research program has been funded through the years by a variety of external and internal sources, including currently by the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  The group has operated with NSF-RUI support every year since the group was formed 19 years ago, during the 1994-95 school year.   Other past support includes a major NSF grant for the Pelletron particle accelerator and attached microprobe facility in 2003.