$2.7 million grant to create future UTPA materials science research center
By Melissa Vasquez
Posted: 10/15/2009
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Establishing a future materials science research center at The University of Texas-Pan American is the main objective of a recent $2.7 million grant UTPA received from the National Science Foundation Partnerships for Research and Education in Materials (PREM).

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– Dr. Karen Lozano

The five-year grant, which provides $1 million for the first two years, partners UTPA with the University of Minnesota (UMN) Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC), which will focus on the development of polymeric and nanoparticle-based materials and devices.

This grant is the first PREM award received by the university and it is the first science and engineering collaboration of this magnitude at UTPA according to Dr. Karen Lozano, mechanical engineering associate professor and principal investigator for the grant.

Lozano said the grant will concentrate on the exploration of nanoparticle-based materials for application in photovoltaic solar cells; soluble conjugated polymers for spin-processable, low cost, plastic light emitters; functionalized nanoporous materials for the application of mechanical-to-interfacial energy conversion; self-healing polymeric materials with block copolymers as key ingredients to ultimately produce smart flexible materials; and nanoreinforced polymeric composite-thin film interface to improve the mechanical properties of materials capable of shielding electromagnetic interference.

Through the PREM partnership, she and colleagues Dr. Arturo Fuentes, mechanical engineering associate professor, and Dr. Yuankun Lin, physics and geology associate professor, who served as co-principal investigators, along with six other UTPA and UMN faculty, are envisioning the PREM program to be a formal venue, a sustainable Center of Excellence, to gather materials science faculty from several departments within the UTPA College of Science and Engineering (COSE) into a coherent materials science center.

“This interdisciplinary center will pool the resources of talented junior faculty from COSE into the development of materials, devices and system analysis. In addition to research support, the PREM program will facilitate this goal through monthly seminars, weekly research group meetings and access to state-of-the-art instrumentation,” Lozano said.

In addition, Lozano and the team hope to increase external funding, refereed reviewed publications, undergraduate students entering graduate school and the work force in materials science related areas, and the number of women faculty members in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

“The collaboration with the MRSEC at UMN, a well respected materials science center, will be an essential component to achieve the proposed objectives. The UTPA-UMN partnership will provide among other things, technical expertise, access to a broad range of instrumentation for advanced materials characterization, student and faculty exchanges, seminars and access to industrial collaboration,” she said.

Through PREM, Lozano is also looking to raise awareness of materials science and engineering among local kinder-12th grade students and teachers by involving them in summer research programs and utilizing existing UTPA programs such as Upward Bound, Gear Up and Tex-Prep programs. Similar sessions for kinder-12th grade students and participants in the Research Experience for Teachers (RET) program for science teachers hosted at the partner UMN MRSEC will also be provided.

“UTPA has strived to achieve the above mentioned objectives through several venues, although these will only be fully achieved through an active participation in a program like PREM where the non-existent capabilities are leveraged by the collaborations. This will speed up all the effort, motivation, inner drive for success and active participation of UTPA faculty therefore increasing UTPA's ability to compete for external funding,” Lozano said.

According to the NSF Web site, PREM was developed to broaden participation and enhance diversity in materials research and education by stimulating the development of formal, long-term, multi-investigator, collaborative research and education partnerships between minority-serving colleges and universities, women's colleges, and colleges and universities dedicated to educating a majority of students with disabilities, groups that are underrepresented STEM and the NSF DMR-supported centers and facilities.