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$300,000 NSF MRI grant awarded to Furman, Mount Holyoke, Richmond to expand program for young chemists

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Last updated October 4, 2023

By Tina Underwood

George C. Shields of Furman University, Maria A. Gomez of Mount Holyoke College and Carol A. Parish of the University of Richmond have been awarded a $300,000 NSF Major Research Instrumentation Program grant to expand computing resources and student training capacity for MERCURY, the Molecular Education and Research Consortium in Undergraduate computational chemistRY, established by Shields in 2001 with co-founders Gomez and Parish. Shields is the grant’s principal investigator (PI); Gomez and Parish are co-principal investigators.

The three-year grant is earmarked for the purchase of an additional high-performance computer cluster to join existing MERCURY resources hosted at Clemson University’s Palmetto Cluster HPC Center. The grant will enable 13 more undergraduate-focused research groups to benefit, growing the consortium to 47 computational scientists at 41 institutions nationwide.

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George C. Shields, Furman Department of Chemistry.

The grant will also enable the scientists to encourage more students, especially women and students from traditionally underrepresented groups, to pursue studies in chemistry. “Our students will have the best of both worlds,” Shields said. “Students will benefit from inclusion in peer groups at the local level as well as at the consortium level,” he added, noting the consortium has served more than 1,000 students in their research projects and spurred hundreds of students to engage in graduate work in chemistry or related fields.

With processing muscle measured in petaflops (each PFlop equal to one thousand trillion operations per second), the CPUs added to the MERCURY computing environment will enable the PIs and their students to spend less time waiting for number crunching and more time formulating new questions.

Broader impacts of the grant include:

  • Forty-seven faculty using the HPC with their undergraduate students will be able to perform high-level, publishable science
  • MERCURY investigators publish at a rate 3.4 times greater than what is typical for an undergraduate institution, pointing to MERCURY’s outstanding mentorship record
  • The research enabled by the MRI grant will support creative and diverse projects ranging from developing novel anti-viral drugs to understanding atmospheric aerosols and their role in global warming to unpacking the molecular behavior of model compounds important in alternative energy
  • A significant number of students from groups traditionally underrepresented in chemistry, including women and students of color, will have the opportunity to work alongside faculty on meaningful research projects in highly mentored research environments
  • Approximately half the students who work on projects will go on to further graduate work in STEM fields, with a high degree of data literacy, and with two-thirds of them being underrepresented in STEM.

“MERCURY consortium students not only get the close personal mentoring found in an undergraduate setting, but they also form larger networks of other MERCURY students and faculty as well as speakers,” Gomez said. “After spending a summer with me, some of my students have gone on to work with one of our summer speakers, and sometimes students have gone on to speakers’ graduate programs. All have been enthusiastic about their larger MERCURY network peer interactions at our annual meeting.”

“Student involvement in carefully constructed, faculty-mentored, outcome-oriented research is the hallmark of an excellent undergraduate education in the sciences,” Parish said. “Computing is increasingly important in all fields, especially science, and MERCURY faculty are committed to producing cutting-edge research while also providing professionally meaningful training and research experiences to our students.”

Beth Pontari, Furman’s interim vice president of Academic Affairs and provost, wrote in the grant’s proposal letter, “Funding provided through this mechanism not only facilitates active original scholarship by faculty and student investigators, across multiple departments and campuses, but also significantly contributes to the preparation of our nation’s next-generation scientists.”

For more information, contact the Furman News and Media Strategy office at 919-548-6493.

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