Winners of 2012 Armstrong Fund for Science Awards Named at UMass Amherst

May 2, 2012

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AMHERST, Mass. - A team of wind power engineers and a physicist have won the sixth annual Armstrong Fund for Science Awards at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which grants $30,000 over two years to two research teams to encourage transformative research that introduces new ways of thinking about pressing scientific or technical challenges.

The engineering team of Matthew Lackner, James Manwell and Sergio Brena will use their grant to develop a new idea for off-shore wind installations, and physicist Lori Goldner will extend her single-molecule imaging strategy to study basic cell processes. All were recently recognized at the UMass Honors Dinner. They were chosen from among 22 proposals submitted this year.

Lackner and Manwell of mechanical and industrial engineering, with Sergio Brena of civil and environmental engineering, are already pioneers in developing renewable wind energy. They will design, analyze and optimize a new multi-rotor offshore wind turbine. They say the need for a new approach is driven by very high costs of installing offshore wind turbine support platforms. Over the past 20 years, the wind industry has dramatically increased rotor sizes to maximize energy production per platform. What Lackner and colleagues propose is to lower costs and optimize output by using many smaller rotors supported on a single structure.

Physics professor Lori Goldner’s award will help her to observe individual protein molecules as they undergo nucleation. Her unique approach overcomes the tendency of proteins to be perturbed by and stick to the surfaces of devices used to observe them. She has developed a way to confine molecules to nanoscopic aqueous droplets in oil, surrounding them like a mini test tube of liquid Teflon, so proteins do not stick. This allows researchers to directly observe, using single-molecule sensitive fluorescence techniques, the protein molecules’ kinetics and structural changes over time as they undergo changes associated with nucleation.

Armstrong awardees agree to present a public "Science for Non-scientists" lecture when their work is complete. The grants are administered by the UMass Amherst Office of Research and Engagement headed by Vice Chancellor Michael Malone, in a competitive proposal process. He says, "The campus greatly appreciates the Armstrongs’ generosity and confidence in our institution and faculty. Giving our faculty opportunities to innovate and excel in their research is an extraordinary gesture."

Benefactors John and Elizabeth Armstrong established their Fund for Science Awards in 2006 to identify and support promising research that does not yet have enough data for application to standard funding channels. "Elizabeth and I want to promote major scientific advances in society by supporting researchers with bold vision, documented credentials and a passion for results," says John Armstrong. "We are happy there continues to be so much interest," Elizabeth adds.