Equipment upgrades to propel scientific discovery, boost Clemson students’ experience
CLEMSON — Fundamental research processes that once took days or weeks to perform will now be done in minutes or hours with new equipment at Clemson University that could accelerate the development of medicines, advanced materials and other technologies.
Scientists have received two competitive grant awards from the National Science Foundation’s Major Research Instrumentation program (MRI) to acquire top-of-the-line supercomputing and molecular-analysis equipment that supports hundreds of faculty researchers and students across campus.
“This new instrumentation advances the type of collaborative, multidisciplinary research projects that have made Clemson a Carnegie R1 top-tier research institution,” said Tanju Karanfil, vice president for research. “MRI grants are highly competitive. Earning two MRI awards in one year speaks volumes to the strength of our faculty and the importance of their research. This will help us recruit more top-tier researchers and graduate students, as well as future investment in Clemson research.”
Leah Casabianca of the chemistry department secured nearly $500,000 to acquire a new, modern nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer (NMR) used in molecular analysis of a wide variety of materials. Despite the word “nuclear” in its name, the spectrometer is just as safe as an MRI machine at a hospital and works using the same underlying physics. Instead of peering into human bodies, the spectrometer allow scientists to determine the structure and properties of molecules from the perspective of the atomic nucleus. Better understanding these properties has a wide range of applications in drug discovery and advanced materials, among many others.
Casabianca will collaborate with faculty in chemistry, engineering, plant sciences, materials science, biology and physics, as well as with local industry and other institutions. The nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer facility at Clemson is used by more than 200 faculty members, postdoctoral fellows and undergraduate and graduate students. Cassabianca’s co-investigators on the grant are Sourav Saha, Julia Brumaghim, Mark Thies and Nishanth Tharayil.
“A university’s NMR capability is one of the things that tells you how good of a chemistry department you have, so this will definitely help us recruit the best graduate students,” said Casabianca, assistant professor of physical chemistry. “A modern university cannot remain competitive in research activities in the physical sciences without working high-field NMR instrumentation.”
The new NMR spectrometer will include a cryoprobe that reduces the time needed to conduct experiments, from 10 hours or more to one hour in some cases. It also allows Casabianca and other scientists to analyze lower-concentration samples, samples that react or degrade quickly and samples that are expensive or difficult to prepare in large quantities.
“It allows experiments to be done that couldn’t be done previously, so in addition to being incredibly time-saving, it also allows us to explore different areas of research that we couldn’t do on previous instruments,” she said.
Cynthia Young, founding dean of the College of Science, said, “Instrumentation like this is a game-changer for advancing science at Clemson. Dr. Casiabanca and her teammates are elevating our reputation and strengthening our ability to recruit top talent through their excellence in discovery, learning and engagement.”
The acquisition of the new equipment benefits faculty at both Clemson and other institutions, noted Carlos Murillo, program director in the National Science Foundation’s Mathematical and Physical Sciences directorate.
“The award for the acquisition of a modern, shared-use nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer will benefit a group of young and some more established investigators. It will allow the researchers to open new areas of research by studying mechanisms of antioxidants, new materials, nanoparticle toxicity as well as soil carbon sequestration, biochemistry and applications to synthesis of new chemical compounds,” he said. “The instrument will benefit not only researchers at Clemson University, but also collaborators at neighboring institutions, such as Spelman College, Morris College and Claflin University.”
In another Major Research Instrumentation grant project, Amy Apon, chair of the Computer Science Division in the School of Computing, led a team that received nearly $1 million to upgrade the Palmetto Cluster supercomputer, which supports computational modeling and data-based research projects across campus. The upgrade will support more than 370 faculty members and students who are working on a broad range of research topics with more than $14 million in funding.
Using the Palmetto Cluster, researchers can analyze massive archives of data to predict transportation patterns, potentially providing information to help drivers avoid accidents and traffic jams, or help civil engineers design more efficient highway infrastructure. Computational modeling can analyze consumer behavior to help companies improve product development and marketing. It can be used to help researchers better understand gases, liquids and combustion; and to build more secure data networks. It helps researchers better understand how genes work, offering insights into genetic disorders, for example, or providing opportunities for greater food security.
A problem that may take 10 days to solve on a conventional computer may take just a few minutes on a supercomputer, Apon said.
“Computational and data-enabled science is the way we are going to solve the most important science questions today,” Apon said. “I know there are many faculty members at Clemson right now that came because Clemson has a commitment to high-performance computing. It’s critical to attracting certain kinds of faculty, and it’s also critical to attracting the top graduate students in our field. Graduate students will come to a school where they know they have the best resources to do the research they want to do.”
Clemson’s research enterprise has grown steadily in recent years, with expenditures increasing from $75 million in 2013 to nearly $90 million in fiscal year 2017. In 2013, the university’s researchers collectively applied for $386 million in funding and received $78 million. In 2017, the university applied for more than $561 million in funding and landed $109 million.
Robert Jones, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost at Clemson, said the Major Research Instrumentation grants further solidify Clemson’s place as a leader in research and education.
“This cutting-edge equipment opens the doors to numerous research opportunities for faculty and will be integral in the training of both undergraduate and graduate students who will now be able to work on the best equipment available in their fields,” Jones said.