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Two grants to fund STEM programs at Binghamton University

Grants, totaling $14 million dollars, from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Department of Energy aim to fund equipment, faculty in research programs.

Grants totaling $14 million, including Binghamton University’s largest federal award to date, promise to fill upcoming years with research in fields from microbiology to battery technology.

An award amounting to $1.2 million from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) is going to fund the Freshman Research Immersion (FRI) program, which begins next year. A $12.8 million grant from the United States Department of Energy (DOE) is going toward energy research at the Northeastern Center for Chemical Energy Storage (NECCES).

The DOE grant goes to the NECCES at BU, which researches energy storage and paths to develop new, cleaner energy materials to store energy.

Approximately 200 Energy Frontier Research Centers, institutions focused on energy innovation, from across the country applied for the award. BU was one of 32 universities to be awarded the four-year grant.

The FRI program is an initiative that gives freshmen interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) an opportunity to begin learning research methods and conducting research as soon as their freshman year, as opposed to later on in their academic career. The different “streams,” or courses of study, available are microbiology, neuroscience and chemistry.

According to Christopher Bishop, a collaborator in the neuroscience stream and associate professor in psychology, the program would not be possible without the HHMI grant.

“One of the challenges for a University like ours, that doesn’t have the philanthropic support necessarily, is in order to do this work we need to seek external money,” Bishop said. “Without the HHMI grant we wouldn’t be able to move forward with this stuff. It would have to have been done on a much smaller scale.”

The HHMI awards four-year grants to research universities proposing new ways to enhance science education. Binghamton University, and its FRI program, was one of the 170 research universities that submitted proposals for the grant. BU is one of the 37 that was awarded funding.

“SUNY Binghamton’s award is both unique, in that it is crafted to fit [the] University, and also part of the larger effort to change the way this nation’s undergraduates learn science,” said David Asai, senior director of science education at the HHMI. “The award to SUNY Binghamton reflects the high promise of the proposal – it’s not so much about what [the] school has already accomplished, it’s about what we think [it] will be able to achieve over the next five years.”

The funding is going to initially launch and sustain the program. The majority of the money is going to research equipment, staffing and publishing the research.

“To provide more undergraduates with the opportunities to conduct real research – research leading to new knowledge and solving important problems – means we have to create more state-of-the-art laboratories with research-grade supplies and faculty who can be there on a day-to-day basis to teach them techniques and protocols, and mentor students so they learn how to conduct and present their research well and how to collaborate with other researchers,” Nancy Stamp, professor of biology and FRI coordinator, wrote in an email.

Bishop said that having professional scientists staff the program was integral.

“The one thing that this particular grant was going to fund was the personnel. I really feel strongly about having real research scientists working with students,” he said. “You don’t want to short-change them; they have to be real scientists that are published, have Ph.D.’s and are professors, so that’s one thing in particular the funding is going for.”

A year in the making, officials said that the program will continue to improve.

“On the front end of projects like this, there’s a ton of work that goes into setting up,” Bishop said. “There’s infrastructure, you have to organize it, put people in place to actually accomplish your goals. I think the biggest problem, besides getting started, is that three or four years out, being sure that we’re assessing ourselves, that we’re staying fresh and that we’re not getting caught in a rut.”

However, according to Asai, challenges are a good thing.

“As with all things that are worth pursuing, I expect that implementing Binghamton’s program will not be without challenges,” he said. “The reviewers want you to be successful, and I think it will be worth the effort. Indeed, if this were easy, I would be concerned that the goals are not aspirational.”