UNCW Chemistry Professors Receive $330,000 National Science Foundation Grant

Monday, May 02, 2016

Two UNCW chemistry researchers have been awarded a three-year, $330,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to fund studies that could enhance scientific knowledge of the inner workings of cells, which ultimately may be useful in understanding the progression and treatment of certain diseases.

Hee-Seung Lee and Rob Hancock are developing new types of sensors that emit light when attached to specific ions. The UNCW researchers are especially interested in molecules that light up in the presence of metals such as copper and zinc. Lee is an associate professor and Hancock is a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

“This grant is evidence of the high-quality research being done by UNCW faculty and students and affirms that the NSF recognizes the significant role this research could play in the advancement of science,” said Aswani Volety, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “It is always rewarding to highlight the accomplishments of our faculty.”

While the use of fluorescent molecules is not new, scientists often have been frustrated in developing ligands – binding molecules – that selectively light up in the presence of metal ions and negatively charged  ions known as anions. This is where Lee and Hancock hope to make a breakthrough. Based on a new design principle they proposed, they will develop molecules that can selectively bind to biologically important ions and will use high-level computation to understand how the binding and fluorescence processes take place. Graduate and undergraduate students will participate in the research.

The research could help scientists see how metals work inside living cells, which may lead to a better understanding of their role in diseases. The ability to watch how copper and zinc, which have been linked to Alzheimer’s, interact with living cells is important in developing better ways to manage the disease, according to Hancock.

The NSF is an independent federal agency established by Congress in 1950. With an annual budget of $7.5 billion, it funds about 24 percent of federally supported research conducted at U.S. colleges and universities.

-- Tricia Vance