Graduate Research
Graduate student and GAANN fellow Don Ho: From silver and gold nanoparticles to a better understanding of the brain. Credit: John Abromowski / Brown University

New grants promote graduate science research

The federally sponsored GAANN program will support six to eight Brown graduate students whose research melds the physical and life sciences.

By Richard C. Lewis  |  November 4, 2009  |  Email to a friend
Don Ho is a lucky person. While Brown’s graduate school guarantees funding for his research in chemistry, he doesn’t have to lean on that option. Indeed, for the next two years, Ho has found another funding source, thanks to a new grant program at Brown.

Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (GAANN), funded by the U.S. Department of Education, helps graduate students pursue the highest degree available at their institution in a field designated as an area of national need, according to the education department.

Brown has tailored its GAANN program to target students who seek to combine nanotechnology with a biomedical application and whose research projects are interdisciplinary, says Agnes Kane, professor of medical science and the architect of Brown’s application. The idea, Kane explains, is to encourage students to meld the physical and life sciences. By stepping outside a specific area and “asking questions,” she says, “you get a whole new perspective on issues that are complicated and require multiple angles.”

In addition to research, fellows will teach in the classroom for one year, guided by faculty in Brown’s Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning.

Ho works in chemistry professor Shouheng Sun’s laboratory. There, he creates silver- and gold-alloy nanoparticles that allow researchers in engineering professor Arto Nurmikko’s lab to use light to study how neural cells are activated, which can lead to insights into how the brain functions. In a process called surface plasmon resonance, Ho uses the metal nanoparticles as mirrors to magnify the light available to the proteins. The result is that less light is needed to activate the neural cells, lowering the risk that they will be damaged in the process.

Ho learned of the GAANN program while attending a forum this fall hosted by Brown’s Institute for Molecular and Nanoscale Innovation. The 27-year-old from Midland, Tex., says he was excited because the grant “fit with the research we were doing.

“I really like the idea the idea behind this grant,” he continues as he creates a new batch of silver nanoparticles in the lab. “It’s interdisciplinary.”

Between six and eight graduate students are expected to be funded through the program, says Robert Hurt, professor of engineering, who will help screen applicants. Fifteen Brown faculty are involved as mentors, from the Division of Biology and Medicine, Division of Engineering, and the departments of Chemistry and Physics, as well as three researchers from the Marine Biology Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass.