New science grants boost research

Professor gets funding for fluorescent research project

by Erin Buote '09

Chemistry professor Nicholas Benfaremo is a part of a five-member team of area scientists that was awarded a $360,000 federal grant from the National Science Foundation to research fluorescent light. The project will pose important new scientific questions, provide undergraduate research opportunities and perhaps even assist in construction of devices that can detect explosives in airports. (Fluorescent light is very sensitive and is able to detect the nitrates in explosives easily.)

Dr. Nick Benfaremo

Benfaremo labels the project’s investigations as fundamental research, in the sense of discovering new approaches. “It’s like a new alphabet,” he says. “If you have a four-letter alphabet you can only do so much. If you’re given a 26-letter alphabet… you can make whole new things, and brand new words and ideas.”

Fluorescent materials absorb light energy in one frequency range (typically UV light) and give light off at a lower frequency (typically as visible light.) The team is working to make organic materials that fluoresce and give off a variety of colors, rather than just the typical bluish color. The team is posing questions about the properties of the molecules and asking: If you alter their environment, does it change their behavior?

The research will benefit undergraduate students most of all. Funded by a grant under the Research in Undergraduate Institutions, a program of the National Science Foundation, the project gives students a chance to learn more sophisticated techniques, attend professional meetings and present their research to other scientists. “Involvement at that level would not be available to students through the average college course,” says Benfaremo.

The project includes faculty scientists at the University of Southern Maine, University of New England, as well as Dr. Benfaremo and a few select undergraduate students at the named colleges. Benfaremo has funding to support one research assistant on campus. Together, the team is working toward presenting their research at the upcoming American Chemical Society meeting in the spring.

Red tide research continues with help from NASA

by Marisa McCarthy '09

Marine science professor Gregory Teegarden has been awarded $90,000 in research funding as part of a major National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) grant garnered by a collaborative team to continue studying red tide in the Gulf of Maine. With three years of support for the project, Dr. Teegarden and his colleagues at the University of Maine and Bowdoin College will be one step closer to developing an early warning system for red tide, which is caused by a toxic algae that has devastating effects on shellfish populations and Maine’s economy.

The remote sensing buoy used in this study is unique because it is placed inshore. (Other buoys, which are part of the Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System, are placed offshore in open waters.) The buoy is tethered to the ocean floor, and allows researchers to measure ocean currents, visibility, temperature and light at many depths. The readings are broadcast to a server where graphs and other measurement tools allow the team to discover the correlation between patterns in the readings and the onset of red tide. Dr. Teegarden, a self-proclaimed “phytoplankton guy,” says the key to preventing red tide will be figuring out how to plot an outbreak by using the signal from the buoy.

Student research assistants from Saint Joseph’s will play a large role in this research. “They will be in the field and in the laboratory collecting and processing plankton samples, and helping to analyze data,” Teegarden says.

The new grant allows Teegarden to continue his research from last spring, during which he made a startling discovery. He explains, “You can usually expect a large bloom of diatoms, which are benign algae, from March to April, and a bloom of dinoflagellates, which cause red tide, in late May and June. This past year it was the exact opposite and the classic pattern was broken.” Teegarden speculates that it was the fresh water from melting snow that caused the excess amount of red tide. Who knew phytoplankton could be so ornery?

As part of his earlier work funded by private foundations such as the John Sage Foundation, Teegarden developed The Casco Bay Plankton Identification web site, which launched in September. He hopes it will serve as a great resource for researchers working with plankton samples and also provide institutions with an effective teaching tool. To visit this unique web site, go to http://sigma.sjcme.edu/cascobaystudy.