By Elizabeth A. Davis
A consortium of Tennessee universities, led by UT, has won a $20-million grant from the National Science Foundation to boost energy-related research and education.
This is not a typical grant that helps a professor fund individual research.
“Public service” is a more fitting descriptor, says UT Knoxville professor Barry Bruce, who helped Tennessee compete for the grant.
The grant is meant to enable researchers at several universities to work together, train teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM subjects) and ultimately create a more educated workforce suitable for the growing solar energy industry in Tennessee.
“I put this down as service, not research,” said Bruce, a professor in biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology who specializes in the study of how plants — algae, for example — convert sunlight into energy. “This is closer to service than being self-serving.”
The grant of $20 million over 5 years was awarded through the National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) Research Infrastructure Improvement Program. While eligible since 2002, Tennessee has not previously won an EPSCoR Research Infrastructure grant. It is one of the largest NSF grants awarded in Tennessee.
The solar energy emphasis builds on Tennessee’s expanding solar energy sector. Under Governor Phil Bredesen’s leadership, Tennessee launched the Biofuels Initiative and Volunteer State Solar Initiative and saw such large solar energy product companies as Wacker Chemie and Hemlock Semiconductor locate in the state.
Bredesen helped announce the grant last September.
“This grant is the largest federally sponsored research award in our state’s history that specifically supports intrastate collaboration and builds research infrastructure in Tennessee,” he said. “Best of all, Tennessee was able to secure this grant because this diverse group of institutions came together, pooled their resources, and formed the collaboration that led us to this award.”
Joining UT Knoxville and the UT Space Institute in the collaborative group are schools from the Tennessee Board of Regents system, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and private universities, including Vanderbilt. Scientists, faculty members, and students from the institutions will be grouped together into “network nodes” for conducting research, mentorship, and outreach.
Bruce said there has been some collaboration with Vanderbilt in the past but hardly any between UT and the Board of Regents schools.
This collaboration set Tennessee apart when applying for the grant.
“Like in gymnastics, we got nearly tens across the board,” Bruce said.
Specifically, the grant will be used to fund activities like awards to new faculty members at non–research extensive institutions; scholarships and stipends for graduate students; summer research experiences for undergraduates; mini-sabbaticals for faculty members of high schools, community colleges, and 4-year colleges; outreach to K–12 classrooms; and summer internships and a yearlong undergraduate training program.
The title of the Tennessee award is “Tennessee Solar Conversion and Storage using Outreach, Research and Education,” or “TN: SCORE” (pronounced “TEN-score”). The collaboration will focus on three main areas of solar energy research:
- Advanced solar conversion and innovation
- Components and devices for energy storage and conversion
- Nanostructures for enhancing energy efficiency
“While we are excited by the level of initial participation, we believe this is just the beginning,” said David Millhorn, UT executive vice-president and principal investigator for the award.
“TN: SCORE will offer a vast number of opportunities to expand our reach to build research and STEM education capacity across Tennessee.”
Barry Bruce, who will be in charge of the advanced solar conversion and innovation area, said the award is a “win-win-win” situation.
In the short term, the award should motivate and inspire more undergraduate students to continue pursuing the STEM disciplines in graduate school.
Quality of STEM teaching at all levels should improve when teachers are given time to participate in research over the summer. High-school teachers, teachers at 2-year colleges, and even instructors at 4-year colleges who do not have time or resources to pursue their own research projects will benefit from getting back into the lab and being around other scientists.
This collaboration will help researchers because by sharing ideas and theories, “Eureka!” events can occur, and these new discoveries could lead to patents and technology that would benefit everyone. That is service indeed.
These 11 Tennessee institutions joined forces to win the $20-million grant to strengthen the state’s science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) research and education (listed alphabetically):
1. East Tennessee State University
2. Fisk University
3. King College
4. Middle Tennessee State University
5. Oak Ridge National Laboratory
6. Tennessee State University
7. Tennessee Technological University
8. University of Memphis
9. University of Tennessee, Knoxville
10. University of Tennessee Space Institute
11. Vanderbilt University