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NASA awards $5 million grant to UC Merced
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Although the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is widely known for its missions in space, its next mission has touched down at University of California, Merced, where it recently awarded a group of researchers with a $5 million grant to establish a NASA-Affiliated Center.

This new center will be the campus’ largest extramurally funded research and education center to date and will be designed to benefit current and future students and contribute to NASA’s missions.

“The new center in partnership with NASA will significantly bolster UC Merced’s excellence in nanoscale materials research, my research interest,” said School of Engineering Professor Jennifer Lu. “The educational program offered by the center will also strengthen the STEM pipeline by stimulating the largely untapped talent pool in this diverse community and increase the enrollment of graduate students.”

Lu, with colleagues Vincent Tung, Tao Ye, Sayantani Ghosh, Anand Subramaniam and Min Hwan Lee, proposed the Merced Nanomaterials Center for Energy and Sensing to harness the university’s strong nanomaterial-based research programs and help develop a pipeline for highly qualified workers in science, technology, engineering and math.

“Each participating investigator has developed and built upon our excellent track record of multidisciplinary and closely-mentored research training for both graduate and undergraduate students,” said Lu.

According to Lu, the main goals of MACES are to create new material solutions enabling high performance, reliable, compact and lightweight energy conversion, storage and sensing devices for NASA missions and to develop a pipeline for highly qualified STEM workforce.

The center’s affiliates — UC Merced Stem Cell Instrumentation Foundry Director Anand Gadre and STEM Resource Center coordinator Petia Gueorguieva; Jin Zhang and Michael Oye from UC Santa Cruz; and collaborators at NASA Research Centers — will work with MACES to recruit, train and retain STEM students. They’ll create a scholarship program to provide research opportunities for undergraduate students — particularly underrepresented students —and provide research fellowships to eight or more graduate students annually.

Nationally, only about 4 percent of Hispanics between the ages of 25 and 34 have associate’s degrees or higher in STEM fields. Lu said this low number presents a serious challenge to meet the need for a world-leading STEM workforce. At UC Merced, 46 percent of undergraduate students are Hispanic underrepresented minorities, while 30 percent of UC Santa Cruz students fit the same category.

“This demographic profile offers an ideal opportunity to make a positive long-term impact on underrepresented minorities,” Lu said.

The center aims to enrich STEM education with an emphasis on hands-on learning and build the STEM workforce pipeline through outreach to local high school students as well as undergraduate and graduate students from the two UC campuses and nearby state universities.

“Through rigorous training, our goal is to train Ph.D. graduates who will evolve as major contributors to NASA’s mission,” Lu said. “The new center will promote collaborative research and cultivate coordinated research efforts between our faculty members. It will also provide seed funding during the grant period to stimulate and attract innovative ideas.”

Additionally, Lu reported that the center will provide the critical resources and cultivate partnerships between researchers from Chemistry, Physics, Materials Science and Engineering and Mechanical Engineering to address key challenges in the synthesis, characterization and integration of functional nanomaterials for sensing and energy harvesting and storage.

They plan to offer multidisciplinary-based education, a nanotechnology emphasis track for graduate students, a seminar course, undergraduate research opportunities to help build students’ confidence, a CSU undergraduate student summer research program, field trips to NASA, professional development workshops for high school science teachers and an annual open house for high school students. The center will also host the annual Dinner with a Scientist event, public lectures and YouTube videos with NASA scientists and other researchers.

“We are very proud and grateful for the work of Professor Lu and her colleagues. This effort will serve the dual role of yielding critical research on new materials as well as educating the country’s future STEM workforce,” said Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development Sam Traina.

“This is a perfect example of how our faculty members are serving the people of California through UC’s dual mission of research and education. Paraphrasing UC President Janet Napolitano, UC teaches for California and researches for the world,” continued Traina.