UWM scores a rare trifecta of grants

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has received three awards from the National Science Foundation to fund research instrumentation. These awards, called Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) grants, are highly competitive, with a limit of three on the number of annual applications from a single institution.

“It is quite unusual for an institution to receive multiple MRI awards in a single year, and it’s certainly unprecedented at UWM,” said Mark Harris, interim vice provost for research.

The three grants, which total just over $1.7 million, will fund equipment that supports research and teaching in the fields of chemistry and biochemistry, engineering, astrophysics, physics and medicine.

The instrumentation and a short description of the purposes of each include:

A new way to image proteins and advance drug discovery

Beginning with an initial MRI grant in 2011, UWM Physics Professor Valerica Raicu developed new technology that offers a color-coded view of the distribution of proteins and how they work together inside a living cell.

Raicu also established the UWM Small Business Collaboratory, a facility where campus and commercial researchers could use the tool, called a two-photon microscope. He has collected input from users in the last two years and will use the new grant to build the second generation of the equipment.

Wider availability of this technology will open up a new way to research cell signaling and provide an untapped source of pharmacological targets, Raicu said.

Studying space through gravitational waves

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is the name given to the largest and most ambitious project ever funded by the NSF. After a recent upgrade, LIGO detectors last year found evidence of gravitational waves, which are ripples in space and time emitted by violent celestial events.

But analyzing the massive amount of data they generate requires high-capacity computing resources. The instruments funded by this grant will facilitate the ongoing discovery and study of the exotic astrophysical events throughout the universe that produce gravitational waves.

The equipment will have a broad international impact, said Patrick Brady, UWM distinguished professor of physics, because it will be available to members of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, a group of more than a thousand researchers worldwide.

An essential instrument for chemical analysis

A nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer is the go-to instrument in both academia and industry to identify unknown substances, to reveal arrangements of atoms within molecules, and to study how molecules interact.

“When performing basic chemical analysis, the two most important pieces of information are structure and mass,” said Graham Moran, UWM professor of biochemistry. “There’s no method comparable to NMR for establishing the unique connectivity of atoms within a molecule. It’s a powerful tool that is essential to all chemistry disciplines.”

The grant funding will be used to replace the aging instrument the Chemistry Department currently has.

The tool also has industrial applications, which is why Deyang Qu, the Johnson Controls endowed professor in energy storage research at UWM, is included on the grant. Qu’s research group uses NMR to answer questions related to the performance of materials that make up batteries.

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