VU plays key role in $20M federal grant designed to strengthen Tennessee’s R&D infrastructure

Engineering faculty, students to benefit from solar research grant

Five years from now, high school and college students throughout Tennessee should have more and better opportunities to learn about and pursue careers in alternative energy science and technology.

That is one of the key objectives of a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation that will fund an unprecedented statewide collaboration in Tennessee higher education.

Announced Sept. 9 by the National Science Foundation and Gov. Phil Bredesen, the grant is one of the largest ever awarded in Tennessee by the federal science agency.

The grant will fund the creation of a statewide coalition of scientists, faculty and students from 11 public and private universities in Tennessee, including Vanderbilt and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

The grant of $20 million over five years was awarded through the National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) Research Infrastructure Improvement Program. While eligible since 2002, Tennessee has not previously won an EPSCoR Research Infrastructure grant.

The collaboration, known as Tennessee Solar Conversion and Storage Using Outreach, Research and Education (TN–SCORE), will draw upon the state’s expanding energy industry and bring researchers from Tennessee universities and ORNL together to boost energy-related research and education across the state. The award is designed to help the state produce a more advanced workforce.

The TN-SCORE program will focus on three main areas:

  • Advanced solar conversion and innovation
  • Components and devices for energy storage and conversion
  • Nanostructures for enhancing energy efficiency

The new project will be built around existing academic centers of excellence. These include: the Vanderbilt Institute for Nanoscale Science and Engineering (VINSE), established in 2001 to provide campus researchers with resources to compete in the highly competitive field of nanoscience and technology; the Sustainable Energy and Education Research Center (SEERC), recently created at UT Knoxville; and the Joint Institute for Advanced Materials, a joint UTK-Oak Ridge National Laboratory research and education facility scheduled to begin operation this spring that will house the new state Solar Institute.

The three research centers will be the focus of a new research network that will include those of the state’s two-year and four-year colleges and private universities interested in participating. The basic organizational unit of this network will be a “node” that consists of a mentor and graduate student from one of the lead institutions who work with a faculty member, graduate and undergraduate students from a partner institution. These groups will work together on specific research projects and also participate in educational outreach efforts. More than 50 faculty members around the state have expressed interest in participating.

Specifically, the grant will fund:

  • Awards to new faculty at non-research extensive institutions
  • Scholarships/stipends for graduate students participating in academic bridge programs between Fisk University, Tennessee State University, Vanderbilt University and other research universities
  • Summer research experience for undergraduates
  • Summer mini-sabbaticals for high school, community college and four-year college faculty
  • Outreach to K-12 classrooms
  • Summer internships and a yearlong undergraduate training program

The successful proposal was written by members of the Tennessee EPSCoR Management Team along with scientists from the three participating centers. The management team members are Professor Gregory Sedrick from the UT Space Institute, Professor Emeritus David Hercules from Vanderbilt, Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Pamela Knox from Tennessee Board of Regents, Director of Research Partnerships Stacey Patterson at UT, and Director of Capital Formation James Stover at Tennessee Technology Development Corporation. Representing the centers were professors Barry Bruce, associate director of SEERC; Sandra Rosenthal, director of VINSE and professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, and Thomas Zawodzinski, Governor’s Chair at UT.