Three Junior Faculty at UH Awarded NHARP Grants

Three University of Houston assistant professors are among a small group of researchers statewide who have been awarded grants from the Norman Hackerman Advanced Research Program (NHARP).

NHARP is administered by the state of Texas’ Higher Education Coordinating Board and is designed to support basic research performed by early-career investigators.

The program received more than 270 proposals but only 12 researchers were awarded grants this year, including Jeff Rimer and Gila Stein, both assistant professors of chemical and biomolecular engineering, and Yuhong Wang, assistant professor of biology and biochemistry. Each received a two-year, $80,000 grant.

Rimer’s research project involves a class of catalysts called zeolites, which are nanoporous materials that are used by the petroleum and chemicals industries to produce different products.

Zeolites have small channels that span their entire structure. Molecules enter these channels, react within the zeolite pores and then exit, transformed into something new.

As a rule of thumb, the thinner the channels, the better, Rimer said. Thinner channels result in great zeolite efficiency and increase the product yield.

“If a molecule enters the zeolite and reacts, you want the products to exit quickly to improve efficiency,” said Rimer. “An ideal catalyst is a thin crystal with high porous surface area, allowing molecules to enter, react and then diffuse rapidly.”

Rimer has developed – and recently received a full patent for – a method to produce ultra-thin zeolites using certain molecules that attach to specific zeolite surfaces and block growth sites, thereby tailoring the size and shape of zeolite crystals. Rimer plans to use the NHARP grant to further develop this technology.

Stein’s work involves using polymers in place of inorganic semiconductors such as silicon to build electronic devices.

Polymers have shown great potential in this arena. To operate most efficiently, though, many devices need polymer nanostructures. Stein will use the NHARP grant to study the use of radiation beams to create these nanostructures.

 “We’re working to understand how you can use radiation to directly pattern different types of functional materials for a variety of applications. We’ll take a lot of technology out there for studying inorganic materials and leverage it for organic semiconductors,” she said.

Wang’s research focuses on ribosomes, the universal protein synthesis assemblies in all life. Gene information is translated into protein by the ribosome, a large complex molecule. 

The goal of Wang’s project is to study the interactions between a ribosome and its substrates, or tRNAs. This research will provide novel structural and kinetic insights about the fundamental mechanism of protein biosynthesis.

“If one single biomarker molecule associated with cancer or other diseases can be readily detected, the disease can be diagnosed as early as possible,” Wang said in explaining the potential applications for her work.

“This project also will introduce science and research to young talented students and attract them to a scientific career at young age,” she said. “Graduate and undergraduate students will be trained in inter-disciplinary fields, including biochemistry, molecular biology, spectroscopy, statistics and nano-biotechnology.”