July 09, 2020

Chemistry Professor Awarded $297,000 NSF Grant

Professor of Chemistry Nikolaus Loening was recently awarded a $297,000 research grant by the National Science Foundation to support studies related to the “molecular underpinnings of life.” Loening’s combined grant efforts have aided the college in purchasing a new 600 MHz NMR Spectrometer, built to study a wide range of chemical and biological processes.

by Scout Brobst BA ’20 

Starting in August of this year, Professor of Chemistry Nikolaus Loening’s scientific research will benefit from the addition of a $297,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant and a new piece of equipment––a 600 MHz NMR Spectrometer, replacing the college’s 300 MHz system purchased in 2001.

The grant, one of three earned by Loening in recent months, is for Research in Undergraduate Institutions as part of the NSF’s Chemistry of Life Processes Program. The program supports “fundamental experimental and computational studies at the interface of chemistry and biology.”

Preliminary investigation for the grant began three years ago, as Loening spent his sabbatical in collaboration with Elisar Barbar, the department head of biochemistry and biophysics at Oregon State University. The pair conducted research using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy––the development of which is Loening’s primary area of research––and provided the basis for the proposal to the NSF.

“What this grant focuses on is looking at dynein, which is a motor protein,” Loening explains. “[Dynein] typically moves things from the periphery of cells toward the nucleus––this protein is rather large and we’re not looking at the whole thing, but what we’re trying to understand is one part of this molecular machine and how it’s regulated and controlled, and what things it’s binded to.”

To pursue Loening’s research question, he and his team will employ a range of techniques including NMR spectroscopy, isothermal titration calorimetry, and circular dichroism.

The three-year grant will allow for a number of semester-long research projects and undergraduate summer opportunities for L&C students, in addition to working with high school students through Saturday Academy’s Apprenticeships in Science and Engineering (ASE) program. Students who enroll in Loening’s Biochemistry Laboratory and Biomolecular NMR Spectroscopy courses will benefit from these hands-on experiences.

“Students can learn a lot about how to work in a lab and how to do biochemistry while working on a real research question instead of just following a cookbook procedure that’s been done over and over again for decades.”

Lewis & Clark's new 600-MHz NMR spectrometer. Lewis & Clark's new 600-MHz NMR spectrometer.The college’s recently acquired 600-MHz NMR Spectrometer, an invaluable resource, is unusual for small colleges. The new equipment was purchased with funding from two additional grants spearheaded by Loening, one awarded by the NSF’s Major Research Instrumentation Program and another by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust.

For Loening, the goal is that this wave of grant funding will be followed by more as new opportunities for research present themselves.

“Usually in science the more questions you answer, the more questions you find need answering,” he says. “So the hope is that this won’t be just a one-time grant. I’m looking to get interesting results, and in doing so generate a bunch of additional questions about how things operate that will lay the basis for reapplying and renewing the grant in the future.”


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