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NIU research attracts four new major science awards

Northern Illinois University efforts to attract external funding for research are off to a strong start in the new fiscal year.

Over a recent two-week period, NIU scientists – including Dhiman Chakraborty in physics, Jozef Bujarski in biological sciences and Narayan Hosmane and Jon Carnahan in chemistry and biochemistry – won four separate National Science Foundation research grant awards totaling nearly $2.3 million.

“National Science Foundation grants are highly competitive, and the proposals from our faculty researchers received top marks from reviewers,” said James Erman, interim vice president for research and graduate studies, in a recent news release. “We’re glad to see that their hard work is being rewarded.”

Funding for two of the projects is tied to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which channeled economic stimulus money to federal funding agencies, including NSF, for scientific research.

The federal stimulus legislation prompted NSF to reconsider some proposals that had gone unfunded. David Stone, director of the NIU Office of Sponsored Projects, said more than 40 NIU proposals still remain eligible for stimulus funding. Additionally, NIU faculty members submitted more than a dozen new proposals in recent months in response to specific governmental agency requests tied to the economic stimulus.

“Sponsored Projects has been busy all summer working with faculty researchers to take advantage of the stimulus funding,” Stone said. “We’re hopeful that more grants will be awarded this fall.”

The newly awarded NSF grants include the following.

NIU’s High Energy Physics group was awarded $1 million in funding for its particle physics research efforts at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia and CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. The stimulus helped boost the latest award by about 30 percent. NIU’s High Energy Physics group has been continuously funded by NSF for more than 20 years, receiving a total of more than $5 million.

Four NIU physics professors are highly involved in the Fermilab research: Dhiman Chakraborty, David Hedin, Gerald Blazey and Michael Fortner. Two NIU research scientists and three graduate students also are working with Fermilab’s international DZero collaboration, which is in search of the Higgs boson, a mysterious and yet-to-be discovered particle that would help explain why objects have mass. Discovery of the Higgs is considered among the most sought-after prizes in the field of particle physics.

Chakraborty also is spearheading NIU’s participation in the ATLAS experiment at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. In coming years, the LHC will surpass Fermilab’s Tevatron as the world’s most powerful collider. Research scientists Guilherme Lima and Vishnu Zutshi, a co-principal investigator on the research grant, also have joined ATLAS, along with two graduate students. NIU’s participation in ATLAS will be expanded later this year.

Biological Sciences Professor Jozef Bujarski, director of the Plant Molecular Biology Center, has received nearly $500,000 for a three-year project investigating the mechanisms of RNA-RNA recombination in a model plant virus. The funding is not tied to the stimulus package but was awarded through the standard NSF award competition.

The research aims to shed light on how plant, animal and human viruses mutate. Bujarski’s research team currently includes four undergraduates, two graduate students, a graduate-level Fulbright scholar from Indonesia and a senior research scientist.

“Polio, measles, HIV and influenza are all RNA-RNA recombination viruses,” said Bujarski, who discovered the phenomena of RNA recombination in viruses when he was a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “If scientists can better understand the mechanism by which recombination occurs, they might be able to prevent the emergence of dangerous viral mutants.”

Bujarski’s research program has been continuously funded during his 23 years at NIU, attracting a total of more than $3.5 million from NSF, the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and private industry.

Chemistry Professor Narayan Hosmane has received the first of three installments over three years on a $414,000 grant for his boron chemistry research program. The funding is not tied to the stimulus but rather was a competitive renewal. With the new round of funding, Hosmane’s program has attracted a total of nearly $1.5 million in NSF funds since 2000, and the program has been continuously funded dating back to 1985, when he was on the faculty at Southern Methodist University.

Hosmane’s latest efforts are geared toward the production and study of boron nano-tubes and nano-rods. Hosmane said the boron nano-tubes are unique because they are water-soluble and could potentially be used as a way of transporting drugs directly into cancer cells.

His boron chemistry program also is working on other fronts to develop nano-technology that could potentially help clean up hazardous waste and to develop improved catalysts for production of superior plastics. Hosmane’s research team includes four undergraduates, a research assistant and three postdoctoral students.

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