UTSA’s Physics and Astronomy Department was recently awarded the largest grant in its history. The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded the five-year, $2.7 million grant in order to further the department’s research of nanoparticles and nanomaterials.

The project will be a collaborative effort by UTSA, UT Health Sciences Center, and Northwestern University. UTSA will receive over 80% of the funding, and UTSA’s own Dr. Dhiraj Sardar is the principle investigator (PI) of the research.

He will work with three subordinate co-PI’s (two from UTSA, one from Northwestern) and several other participants. According to Dr. Sardar, the grant signifies ground-breaking progress for the physics department and presents great opportunity for students.

The department, which did not even exist when Dr. Sardar first arrived at UTSA in 1984, has recently been gaining recognition across the nation—a process the grant will only benefit. Dr. Sardar hopes that the enhanced image and reputation will contribute to a greater draw among top students, and will raise the bar of expectations.

“My hope,” he says, “is that people will recognize that we have a prestigious, very advanced program here—particularly in nanoscience—and that it will draw more students.” He also expects the grant to serve as a powerful message that will expand the physics department’s reputation among not only the academic public, but also within UTSA’s own student body.

Funding for physics research is typically difficult to come by: competition is fierce because of the relatively small amount of money available to physics research in general.

Dr. Sardar says, “We don’t have the kind of funds that some other fields have. NSF’s budget is only one-third of NIF’s (National Ignition Facility).”

Being awarded a grant of this size indicates a great deal about the progress being made and should also help expand the department’s influence within the university. Portions of the grant will be used to further demonstrate the development and expertise of UTSA’s physics department; some of the money will be used to attend and present at flagship national conferences, such as that hosted by the American Physical Society (APS).

The APS is the world’s second-largest organization of physicists and, Dr. Sardar proudly notes, UTSA’s physics department is scheduled to host the meeting of the Texas section of the APS during October 21-23, 2010—it will be UTSA’s first time to host the event. Moreover, the national conference will be held in San Antonio in 2015.

One goal of the research is to study nanomaterials that can be used in the construction of lasers, which could greatly benefit medical technology by providing enhanced diagnostic abilities.

The benefit of earlier detection of illnesses, by means of “characterizing biological material” (think more-advanced MRI’s), could extend to treatment of diseases ranging from retinopathy to cancer. Nanomaterials that will be used typically range from 10-12 nanometers (a nanometer is one-billionth of one meter) and cannot be seen without an electron microscope.

The products of the research are also intended to have applications in fields as diverse as spectroscopy, biophotonics, solar energy, and the biomedical field.

However, the material gains from the research are of secondary importance to Dr. Sardar.

“Most importantly,” he states, “this project will integrate education and training for both undergraduate and graduate students, especially underrepresented minority students.”

Over the course of the grant, roughly $900,000 will go directly to undergraduate and graduate students serving as research assistants.

The sum will be distributed in stipends: $25,000 per year to six graduate assistants, and $5,000 per year to six undergraduate assistants, who will work only during the summer.

Undergraduate assistants will have the opportunity to conduct research alongside grad students and have the chance to learn a great deal.

Dr. Sarder says, “We treat our undergraduate assistants the same as the graduate assistants.

They get to do research work in the lab, they travel to present papers, and they go with us to attend conferences. They are even named co-authors in papers they assist with.”

He advises students interested in the positions to become acquainted with physics professors, including him, by taking classes with them. He also welcomes all students who may be interested in physics, noting that there is great diversity in subject matter and expertise available:

“We have many excellent professors here who are internationally-recognized,” he says.

Other current research focuses include material science, biophysics, theoretical physics, computational physics, mathematical physics, and astronomy. Dr. Sardar hopes to establish nanoscience research as a long-term program, and will be applying for a new grant before the current cycle expires.

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