Three Researchers at UMass Amherst Win Prestigious Career Awards from the NSF

AMHERST, Mass. - Three University of Massachusetts researchers from the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics have been named to receive CAREER awards by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The prestigious awards support the work of young faculty members. The recipients are Elizabeth Brainerd of biology and the program in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Ricardo Metz of chemistry, and Narayanan Menon of physics and astronomy.

"The awarding of these extremely high-profile awards to three faculty members is a testament to the University''s commitment to bringing high-quality researchers to this campus," said Linda Slakey, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. "We are extremely proud not just of these scientists'' individual accomplishments, but also with the breadth of intellectual vigor they bring to UMass."

Brainerd''s grant is for $350,000 over five years. Her research focuses on the evolution of lung ventilation in vertebrate animals. "We know that the primitive condition is to use a mouth pump, or ''buccal'' pump, to force air into the lungs, as seen in frogs and lungfish," Brainerd explains. "The evolved condition, as seen in reptiles, birds and mammals, is to rotate the ribs and suck air down into the lungs, which we call aspiration breathing." We have little information, she adds, on how or why this dramatic transition occurred. Brainerd recently discovered that some lizards use both a buccal pump and an aspiration pump during exercise. The breathing mechanism of lizards may therefore be a "living fossil" of an intermediate mechanism, she says. Her research will consider a wide range of lizard species, with the goal of using this living fossil model to understand the dramatic evolutionary transition that occurred. In conjunction with the grant, Brainerd is also introducing two new undergraduate courses that will emphasize the development of students'' research-related intellectual skills.

Metz will receive $363,800 over four years. He studies the chemistry of natural gas, with an eye toward converting it to a more transportable substance. "Natural gas is a cheap, abundant energy source that is very much underutilized because it is difficult to get the natural gas from the source to the consumer," he explains. This transportation problem occurs because, unlike most gases, natural gas cannot be converted to a liquid by simply pressurizing it. Thus, any reasonable amount of natural gas takes up a great deal of space, so "you can''t readily transport it on trucks as you can with gasoline, which is a liquid, or liquefied propane, a gas that becomes a liquid under pressure," he says. Metz studies the chemical reactions that will help people to design catalysts looking at the chemical reactions that convert methane - of which natural gas is primarily comprised - to methanol or larger hydrocarbons, which are more easily transported.

Menon will receive $340,000 over four years. A physicist, he works primarily on the unusual properties of a collection of powders or sands, which scientists call "granular matter." He demonstrates by shaking a transparent canister filled with tiny glass beads. "They can be poured onto the floor and, like a liquid, will not hold onto their form; but if I do not add energy by shaking the jar, they can pile up in a heap, which a liquid could not," he notes. Menon points out that while individual beads or salt grains are transparent, a collection of them appears opaque. That makes it difficult to study the exact movement of the individual beads or grains. Menon overcomes this obstacle by using laser light, which is aimed at sand or grain as it is poured, he said. He can determine exactly how the particles move by analyzing the light that bounces back. His findings have been surprising so far, Menon says. In many situations, rather than rubbing against one another, the particles actually separate from each other. "We would like to be able to explain this movement on the same scientific level as scientists are now able to describe the flow of water," says Menon. The work has applications in industry, agriculture, and in processing pharmaceuticals.