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Six projects to benefit from Provost’s research equipment grants

by Cindy Weiss - December 10, 2007

Six proposals from researchers in the sciences and engineering won a total of $2 million of equipment funding in the recent Provost’s Research Equipment Competition.

The six, chosen from 31 proposals submitted, include a total of 62 researchers who are on the teams that will use the equipment.

The winning principal investigators (PIs) say their new equipment will be available to other researchers at UConn, too.

The funded proposals and their faculty PIs are: Mark Aindow, C. Barry Carter, and Lei Zhu from chemical, materials, and biomolecular engineering for a scanning transmission electron microscope; James Cole from molecular and cell biology for a fluorescence detector for the analytical centrifuge; Senjie Lin from marine sciences for a cytobuoy and fast repetition rate fluorimeter; Joseph LoTurco from physiology and neurobiology for an intravital multiphoton imaging system; Steve Suib from chemistry for a tandem mass spectrometer; and Adam Zweifach from molecular and cell biology for a flow cytometer.

The cost of the equipment to be purchased ranges from $145,000 for the fluorescence detector to $800,000 for the scanning transmission electron microscope, which engineers hope to be able to purchase at a discount for about $500,000.

The new equipment, which must be bought by May 2008, will enable scientists and engineers to better understand such things as the biodiversity and environmental stresses on Long Island Sound and to study materials such as metals, ceramics, semi-conductors, and polymers at an extremely fine scale.

It will allow chemists to do much more sensitive analyses and enable molecular biologists to study in detail one protein in a complex mixture.

Seventeen users from nine different departments are listed on one successful proposal to purchase a flow cytometer.

Adam Zweifach, associate professor of molecular and cell biology, the PI, says the instrument will aid the study of tumor and virus-infected cells and will streamline their ability to make stable cell lines.

It will help stem cell researchers on the Storrs campus and will eliminate the need to travel to the Health Center, which has several flow cytometers, to bring back live cells to Storrs for further study.

“This is certainly going to make it easier to apply for my competitive renewal,” says Zweifach, whose research is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

That was one of the intents of the competition, says Suman Singha, vice provost for academic administration and co-chair of the competition committee.

“The committee was looking at what was best for moving the University’s research enterprise forward,” says Singha.

“We strongly expect this will enhance our ability to get external grants.”

In many cases, lacking one piece of equipment has hindered researchers from obtaining competitive external grants, he notes.

Senjie Lin, associate professor of marine sciences and PI on one of the successful proposals, will purchase a $190,000 cytobuoy and fast repetition rate fluorimeter.

These two pieces of equipment can be towed through the ocean, pumping a narrow stream of water through the instruments.

That will allow scientists to study at a cellular level the tiny living organisms in Long Island Sound, an area of focus for the marine sciences department.

“This will substantially strengthen our ability to make high time-resolution observations in the sea,” says Lin.

“These instruments will enable us to gain an understanding of biodiversity, environmental stress and ecological adaptation, population dynamics, and oceanographic processes that regulate fisher productivity, hypoxia, and water quality.

Obtaining a new scanning transmission electron microscope (TEM) will enable 21 engineers and chemists on one of the winning proposals to look at the size, shape, and features of a variety of materials at a very fine scale, says Mark Aindow, professor and director of the materials science and engineering program and one of three PIs on the proposal.

The new equipment will replace a 25-year-old TEM housed at the Institute of Materials Science. It will be digital – the old instrument uses film – and will allow researchers to strain materials and see how they deform as they are looking at them.

It will also allow them to look at soft materials, using frozen samples, without damaging them.

“The ability to perform these types of experiments will place us in a strong position to secure new support for our research programs,” says Aindow.

James Cole, professor of molecular and cell biology, says the fluorescence detector for the analytical centrifuge will reinforce UConn’s reputation as a leading national center for analytical ultracentrifugation and biophysics. Cole is PI on that proposal.

Very few institutions have a fluorescence detector for their analytical ultracentrifuges, he says.

His research group will use it to study the behavior of a protein that is important in anti-viral defense.

The $2 million equipment competition was funded by reallocating $1 million for 2008 faculty hires that is now in the budget, before the new faculty have been hired, with matching funds made available by the University’s chief financial officer.

Gregory Anderson, vice provost for research and graduate education and dean of the graduate school and co-chair of the competition committee, says he hopes the large equipment grants awarded in past years might be offered again in the future.

Previously, these were sponsored by the Research Advisory Council, which is funded through indirect cost returns on researchers’ grants.

The committee’s work in selecting the winning proposals was hard because of the high quality of the submissions, says Singha.

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