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Boosting shrinking science & engineering enrollments

January 7, 2010

Climate change, new energy resources, sustainable agriculture, and emerging infectious diseases are just some of the global challenges that require the best and brightest minds. The National Science Foundation, recognizing the importance of creating a strong national bank of students in science and engineering, is investing in programs designed to encourage students who wish to pursue these degrees.

Train scientists in a new way

Stuart Tobet, professor of biomedical sciences, center, along with research associate Michelle Edelmann, and undergraduate student Brandon Wadas, are researching estrogen receptors and their relationship to neuronal development.

Last summer, as part of those efforts, Colorado State University scientists received a $2.7 million National Science Foundation grant to train graduate students on cutting-edge research while also preparing them to share their knowledge with K-12 teachers and industry.

The grant will help the United States stay competitive globally by boosting shrinking science and engineering enrollments and giving emerging scientists more tools to work with in their communities, the scientists said.

In addition to research and education, the grant enables scientists and students at Colorado State University to work with nanotechnology and data analysis companies, such as ADInstruments, Avago Technologies, and Leeds Precision Instruments. By including an industry component, students refine the research from a translational perspective.

Understanding cell behavior

On the scientific side of the grant, graduate students test new theories about how cells behave using advanced engineering methods in microelectronics and electrochemistry – research led by co-principal investigators Stuart Tobet, a professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences; and Thomas Chen, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, College of Engineering.

Michael A. De Miranda, a professor in the School of Education and another co-principal investigator of the grant, will work with students on the next step: Taking what they've learned and sharing it with K-12 teachers across the region. Participating are the Poudre, Thompson Valley, Greeley, and Weld RE-9 school districts in Northern Colorado.

Infuse K-12 students with excitement

The goal to infuse K-12 students with excitement for careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, comes at an opportune time – when fewer students are pursuing STEM careers. According to the Board of Engineering Education Research Council, the nation faces a declining number of engineering graduates – the annual graduation rate in engineering has decreased by roughly 20 percent in the last decade – while the number of engineering jobs is expected to grow 25 percent to 30 percent by the end of the century.

Graduate students, like those visiting an anatomy class at Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins, Colo., take cutting-edge science into the classroom to instruct teachers, mentor students, and create partnerships between higher education and K-12 science programs.

“We’re all recognizing the fact that 21st century science requires interdisciplinary collaboration," Tobet said. “The CSU environment helps promote that collaboration.”

How the brain develops, nanosystems

Dr. Tobet’s research focuses on how the brain develops – how cells define a growing and maturing brain. Dr. Chen’s research focuses on developing nanosystems in electrical engineering. Biosensors created by Chen and his students will help “track” molecular movements for Tobet who studies molecules that influence cell movements in the brain, ovaries, and pituitary glands.

Using electrochemistry as a detection method, cells are spread over a layer of electrodes that are one to two microns wide – about one one-hundredths of the diameter of a human hair. These studies also are strongly supported by Chuck Henry, a professor in the Department of Chemistry, College of Natural Sciences, who has significant expertise in the area of electrochemistry.

Chemical communications between cells

“There’s a region of the brain where we can look at particular chemical communications between cells,” Tobet said. “We don’t know what happens as those chemicals known as neurotransmitters are released – where do they go and how do they get used or absorbed? The team also will be able to utilize mathematical modeling to help understand the complexities of the biological process with the support of Vakhtang Putkaradze from the Department of Mathematics, College of Natural Sciences.”

Ultimately, biosensors could help predict when patients will experience an epileptic attack or help pinpoint and understand chronic pain, Tobet said. “The problems we’re trying to solve require a very broad range of expertise,” Chen said. “We can have a wide impact. The overall goal of the proposal is to train scientists in a new way.”

Originally published in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences Fall 2009 Insight newsletter.