When the national economy turned sour and it became clear the effects of the Great Recession weren’t going anywhere quickly, federal, state and local governments began to examine their numbers.

Higher education and research – both important contributors to scientific advancement and economic forces, quickly became targets. Public school systems, universities and other research institutions were forced to work more with less as funding sources dried up. Securing funding from agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health became even more important – and more competitive.

West Virginia University, which has not been immune to funding cuts, is doubling down on efforts to become better known as a national research player. 

In the C. Eugene Bennett Department of Chemistry, a wave of projects – largely conducted by junior faculty – has been awarded more than $3.8 million in funding commitments. This funding, researchers say, will lead to innovation with the potential for commercialization and will engage a new generation of chemistry students.

“Under this very difficult funding environment, the department has been very successful this year,” said Kung Wang, department chair. “Getting this level of funding is not easy, and it’s an indicator that we’re very competitive and our research is being noticed outside of the department.”

BIG STRENGTH, TINY PACKAGE

Wang, Eberly Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, teaches organic chemistry classes. He’s also performing his own research with implications in the electronics, healthcare, and environmental industries. One of his projects includes researching the production of carbon nanotubes. 

Carbon nanotubes are some of the strongest materials available – more than 100 times stronger than steel, with the thickness of one ten-thousandth of a human hair. Their electrical properties could offer an improvement on current electrical systems, with a substantially better ability to conduct electricity than copper systems. 

“We’re trying to make a template that will allow us to grow those nanotubes,” Wang said. 

The National Science Foundation has awarded Wang $420,000 to examine ways to produce carbon nanohoop templates that would allow researchers to replicate the materials in uniform size and diameter. Current methods of producing these nanotubes result in a mixture of different sizes and curvatures.

Wang’s research will synthesize the smallest unit of carbon nanotubes. These nanohoops will then be used as seeds to grow nanotubes of uniform diameter and curvature, two factors crucial to implementation in nanotechnology.

BREAKING APART THE BUILDING BLOCKS OF LIFE

Proteins in the body must conform to specific three-dimensional structures in their development for them to perform their tasks. Without the proteins in their proper structure, they cannot perform their biological function. This characteristic is responsible for diseases such as Huntington’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease. 

Unfortunately, little is known about the protein development malfunctions that cause what is known as “misfolding.”

Stephen Valentine, assistant professor, has been awarded $1 million from the National Institutes of Health to develop new instrumentation that combines established methods of protein measurement: Ion mobility spectrometry and mass spectrometry. By combining the two in an accessible and adaptable machine, Valentine and his team hope to access protein structure characterization at a level never seen before — yielding more information on these basic building blocks of life.

By developing a product in-house, Valentine hopes to cut down the cost and customization barriers that hinder attempts at research that will ultimately identify more effective treatments for a number of neurodegenerative diseases. 

“If you were to go out into the commercial world, (it costs) $750,000 to $1 million just for the instrument,” Valentine said. “We’re trying to build an instrument that will have much greater capabilities than commercial instrumentation for less cost.”

Valentine’s research will benefit greatly from such a machine. By combining the two methods, he will be able to gain insight into the structures of these proteins previously unavailable through conventional methods. 

With such a device available on campus, additional research possibilities open up and with it more opportunities for the department and University. 

“What that does for WVU is that it shows that we have unique capabilities,” Valentine said. “We can actually build state-of-the-art instrumentation that can do specific experiments no other instrumentation can currently do.”

THE POWER OF PROTEINS

As Valentine seeks to understand the structures of complex proteins, Associate Professor Justin Legleiter is trying to target protein interactions with membranes. 

Huntington’s disease is a degenerative neuroloigcal disease caused when a specific amino acid, glutamine, repeats 35 times or more. The longer the strain of glutamine, the more severe and early onset the disease develops. Legleiter’s research, supported by a $443,803 grant from the National Institutes of Health, will examine a 17  amino acid sequence located nearby in the Huntingtin protein. 

Legleiter and his team will examine how the sequence can be manipulated to prevent, or alter, the development of the Huntington’s disease protein aggregates. 

“Maybe we can look at a single amino acid we can target to manipulate the aggregation or trafficking of the protein,” Legleiter said. “If we can understand how this domain allows for huntingtin to bind membranes and how it is involved in the aggregation process, we can think of better ways of trying to manipulate that as a potential therapy.”

NEW ON CAMPUS

State-of-the-art equipment is critical with new and emerging scientific practices. Without it, research efforts would fall behind those of peer departments at different universities. WVU students would also fall behind their peers at universities that have access to such devices.

Thanks to a joint award of more than $250,000 from the National Science Foundation and cost-share from WVU, the C. Eugene Bennett Department of Chemistry will soon have a gem in its laboratory collection – the state’s first in situ infrared spectroscopy system.

The new instrument will complement existing spectroscopy equipment available in the department. The infrared spectroscopy equipment will allow Assistant Professor Brian Popp and his students – and others in the department – to examine reactions of inorganic, organometallic and organic molecules in better detail.

Science

By developing an instrument for protein measurement in-house, Valentine hopes to cut down the cost and customization barriers that hinder attempts at research.

Currently, the department’s equipment only shows molecular reactions in their starting and ending states. The new equipment will allow users to see exactly what’s happening as the molecules undergo change in real time using infrared vibrations.

“It allows us to monitor the reaction progress with temporal resolution, or in other words in ‘real time’,” Popp said. “We can watch reactions as they occur, leading us to better understand how the reaction is taking place. The point is to understand the molecular level details of a reaction’s mechanism. This information is critically important when one tries to optimize a reaction.”

Popp and his team will use the machine to develop better catalysts for pharmaceutical and commodity  chemical purposes. His research takes earth-abundant metals such as cobalt, nickel, and copper, and uses them to transform inexpensive organic substrates, such as carbon dioxide, into higher value products. 

“It’s important that our undergraduates and graduate students gain meaningful laboratory experience on this and other state-of-the-art instrumentation during their time at WVU, so when they leave us to pursue careers in chemistry, they will have a competitive knowledge advantage over their peers from other institutions,” he said. 

A CASE FOR CLASSICAL TRAINING 

With other projects using or designing cutting-edge technologies for their research, Assistant Professor Jessica Hoover is using a more “classic” form of chemistry – beakers, test tubes and more. 

Though a more familiar image of chemistry, her synthetic research is still groundbreaking. Hoover and her team have created a new mode for chemical catalysis. 

While this new synthetic method may be used in the fine chemical industries – such as pharmaceuticals or agriculture based chemicals, the resulting structures can be used for anything from electronic materials to food additives. 

The research uses a process known as oxidative decarboxylative coupling to catalyze the formation of carbon-carbon bonds. Instead of potentially wasteful, expensive and toxic reagents, the reactions use abundant carboxylic acids instead. 

“We’re developing strategies that can be implemented in industries where they’re already making these bonds, but they’re using five or six steps to get there,” Hoover said. “We’re trying to find a more efficient way of accessing the same structures. We’re looking for tools to make those molecules more efficiently, using methods that are more environmentally friendly and less expensive.” 

In addition to her research, Hoover is developing a summer outreach program involving chemistry, art and engineering students. Currently in the planning stages, students will design and build a science-art installation that will be placed within the community to engage the public in aspects of science and chemistry in an approachable way. 

As the world continues to face new scientific challenges – from climate change to energy – and funding sources becoming harder to come by, sparking new interest in science and technology has never been more essential. 

With these projects and these new funding opportunities, administrators said the Department of Chemistry will continue to thrive. 

“These projects represent the growth of the department,” Wang said. “With so many young and talented faculty, the future of the Chemistry Department is bright.”