Feature Stories

Nurturing Innovation

The Armstrong Fund seeds science with high potential
  • UMass Amherst professor Matthew Lackner stands on a mountain with a wind turbine in the background.

The Armstrong Fund for Science was established at UMass Amherst in 2006 to support research projects holding promise for major science or engineering impact.

It’s an intriguing question, first posed in the 1970s: might economic or engineering benefits be gained by replacing the typical one-rotor design of offshore wind turbines with one using numerous smaller rotors?

Some back-of-the-envelope math suggested that the idea had promise, and Lackner and his colleagues—James Manwell, professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, and Sergio Breña, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering—were eager to delve more deeply into such matters as the design and installation costs of a structure that could support multiple rotors. They were able to do so starting in 2012 thanks to a two-year grant from the Armstrong Fund for Science. Established nearly ten years ago with a gift from stalwart campus supporters John and Elizabeth Armstrong, the Armstrong Fund awards UMass Amherst faculty grants of $20,000 a year for up to two years to support work that “challenges conventions in their field.”

This year’s Armstrong Award recipients are Sarah Perry, assistant professor of chemical engineering, and Jun Yan, assistant professor of physics. Perry will use her grant to develop a synthetic formulation method to allow the tetanus vaccine to maintain its safety and effectiveness without the need for refrigeration. That would be especially useful in developing countries where a lack of refrigeration leads many desperately needed doses to spoil and be discarded unused. Yan’s grant will allow his lab to test the use of the inorganic compound tungsten diselenide rather than the standard silicon in making transistors for electronic devices, making for lighter, faster portable devices.

Since its establishment, the Armstrong Fund has supported 14 research projects by faculty from departments ranging from food science to polymer science and engineering, computer science to veterinary and animal science. The fund was established to support projects that have promise but are not yet far enough along to apply for traditional funding sources. At the end of the grant term, recipients report their findings and give a public lecture on their work.

Lackner, Manwell, and Brena’s grant allowed them to fund graduate student Gaurav Mate, whose thesis entailed creating detailed models of various multi-rotor concepts engineered to withstand the forces of wind and gravity. He also did an economic analysis of whether multi-rotor models could compete economically with conventional turbines.

In the end, Lackner says, the research yielded promising results. While a multi-rotor turbine system has approximately the same total mass as a single-rotor model, less of that mass is concentrated in the blades, which are made of expensive composite materials; the mass lies more in the underlying support structures, made of less-expensive steel. That suggests that a multi-rotor turbine can more cheaply generate the same amount of power as a single-rotor one.

While questions remain about the construction and installation of such models, Lackner says that “it shows potential.” He and his colleagues are now building on their findings to further develop the multi-rotor concept.

Jeanne Hardy, associate professor of chemistry, won an Armstrong Award in 2013 in support of her work researching caspase-6, a human protein involved in the development and progression of Alzheimer’s disease and the development of Huntington’s disease. The grant helped her lab explore the relationship between caspase-6’s two conformations, helical and non-helical, and how the protein shifts between the two in a way specific to this protein.

The data they found allowed them to identify a compound that binds to and interacts with caspase-6 in a very specific manner, inhibiting it and preventing it from leading to the development of Alzheimer’s. “This is the kind of thing you’re looking for in developing a drug,” Hardy says. Her lab will now continue working on caspase-6-specific inhibitors, with an eye on developing drugs for treating Alzheimer’s.

Jennifer Ross, associate professor of physics, is a biophysicist whose work centers on microtubules—strong, hollow microscopic tubes that provide structure to many human and plant cells. She received an Armstrong grant in 2009 to support her research on how cells organize themselves and how that process can be recreated in a lab setting using highly advanced microscope techniques.

“I’ve always been interested in how the inside of the cell rearranges itself depending on its functions,” Ross says. “We have no idea how that occurs. There’s no foreman inside the cell telling things where they’re supposed to go, yet thousands and thousands of things all work together.”

Ross’s lab breaks these processes down into simpler forms by isolating and removing from cells individual proteins that she compares to tiny machines serving particular functions. The proteins can then be combined in known quantities in systematic ways, enabling the researchers to see how they organize themselves. Building cells from their component parts like this helps researchers understand their internal organization; that, in turn, can be helpful, for instance, in understanding why certain cells end up organizing in ways associated with adult-onset diseases. The research can also be applied to human tissue creation to approach such challenges as building cells to develop prosthetic skin.

In the years since receiving her Armstrong Award, Ross has continued to expand her work with the support of other grants. Lackner and his colleagues have also received subsequent funding, including grants from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, for their work on wind turbines. But the team’s Armstrong funding, Lackner says, was crucial in helping them develop an initial idea that he describes as “a little out there, a little unconventional. I really appreciated it, because it gave us enough money to delve into an idea that really wasn’t ready for a large-scale proposal.”

Maureen Turner