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Appalachian faculty members win research grants

BOONE – Two Appalachian State University faculty members have been selected by Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) to receive 2011 Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement Awards.

The award provides a one-year $5,000 grant to fund research by junior faculty at ORAU member institutions, with the aim of enriching the research and professional growth of young faculty.

Dr. Brad Conrad, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, and Dr. Michael Madritch, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology, are two of only 30 faculty members from 98 member institutions to receive the research awards. ORAU received 118 applications and research proposals.

“This speaks to the quality of Appalachian’s junior faculty,” said Edelma Huntley, dean of research and graduate studies and chief research officer. “Many of the institutions represented in the competition are doctoral universities and high or very high research campuses.”

The professors also will each receive a $5,000 matching grant from Appalachian’s College of Arts and Sciences where their departments are housed.

Conrad will use the award to purchase materials and fund student assistance to equip a recently refurbished ultra-high vacuum scanning tunneling microscope (UHV-STM) with a complete thermal evaporator system.

“This will allow me to look at ways naturally occurring organic molecules can be modified to replace silicon and other hard brittle materials used to make solar cells, chemical sensors and light emitting diodes,” Conrad explained. “The process to make silicon is energy intensive and results in many unhealthy byproducts. These organic materials can be very inexpensive to produce and will decompose naturally with time, making them environmentally friendly.”

The grants will assist Madritch in studying how genetic variation in plant populations are important to ecosystem processes that influence all species. Of particular interest to Madritch is how plant genetic diversity impacts nitrogen cycling in forests.

“The Powe award will allow us to develop black locust and its associated microbial community as a model system to explore how ecosystems respond to genetic variation and nitrogen-fixing plant-microbe mutualism,” Madritch said. “Working at the Department of Biology’s Robert Gilley Field Station in Ashe County, we will establish experimental gardens designed to determine how plant genetic variation influences things like primary production, nitrogen fixation, pest resistance and soil carbon storage. This project will be among the first to address the effects of genetic diversity in critically important nitrogen fixing systems.”

At Appalachian, research, scholarship and creative activity are fundamental to the mission of the university. Research, scholarship and the production or performance of creative work – like teaching and service – are crucial to both the institution and the region that it serves. Through their work, Appalachian’s faculty, students and staff expand the boundaries of their academic disciplines, discover answers to real world questions, enhance the quality of life in the region, enrich the classroom experience and contribute to economic development.