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Calvin Receives $225k in NSF Funding
October 4, 2005

A trio of Calvin College grant proposals has been funded by the National Science Foundation.

Together those three grants will bring almost $225,000 to the Calvin campus, funding cutting-edge science instrumentation, advanced mathematics research and an array of new opportunities for student participation.

The largest grant is $107,132 from the NSF Major Research Instrumentation program to Calvin scientists Loren Haarsma, John Ubels, Stephen Matheson and Paul Moes to set up an electrophysiology lab on the college's campus. This is Calvin's fifth instrumentation grant from NSF in the past eight years.

Haarsma notes that this will be the first lab in the Grand Rapids area which allows scientists to study the electrophysiology of nerve cells.

In addition mathematic professor Jim Turner has received $73,511 from the NSF to continue his research on "Interactions Between Homotopy Theory and Commutative Algebra."

And computer science professor David Laverell has received an NSF grant of $42,858 to build what is called an Emulab, a lab consisting of 24 personal computers and a trio of switches which can be configured by software into a wide variety of dedicated labs. This will be a joint project with the University of Kentucky.

Money for the new electrophysiology lab at Calvin will be dedicated to equipment. All told, says Haarsma, the new lab will require about a dozen pieces of separate equipment, including a high-powered microscope, a device which can create tiny electrodes which attach to single cells, and sophisticated electronics which can both stimulate cells and measure their responses.

Haarsma, biologists Matheson and Ubels and psychologist Moes will use the new lab for a variety of research projects on nerve cells, precursors to nerve cells and cells in the lacrimal gland which produce tears.

Haarsma, for example, plans to continue work he began in the late 1990s at the University of Pennsylvania on the retina. He and a colleague at the University of Michigan now will have similar labs and will be able to share and combine results from the work.

Ubels will continue long-standing research on the lacrimal gland, Moes will study brain cells and Matheson will gather research on nerve cell precursors.

All four investigators plan to use Calvin students as research assistants, especially in the summer.

Laverell says his project not only will use student assistants to set it up, but also will directly benefit Calvin students in their classroom work, and, down the road, perhaps local high school students as well.

"Emulabs," he says, "are becoming more and more popular at college and university settings to help students gain hands-on experience for operating systems and networking courses. In fact, undergraduate computer science curriculum guidelines emphasize the fact that computer science is an applied discipline in which students must do, not just read about science. Students must be given opportunities to develop practical, hands-on skills in a laboratory setting, especially in the operating system and networking courses."

With his recent NSF grant Laverell will develop software for a hands-on laboratory facility that will be useful in a classes such as operating systems, networking, distributed systems and more. And he will develop a wealth of laboratory materials to be used in the context of an Emulab.

For his part Turner plans to bring students on board his project in the summers of 2007 and 2008 to work with him on a complex and complicated geometric problem concerning the zeros of polynomials. His work will give Calvin students valuable contact with major research centers in the U.S.

Says Turner: "As one considers more polynomials with more variables, interesting questions arise in characterizing the subtle and intricate features of a geometric surface. My research aims at developing ways of characterizing these geometric features using both algebra and a subfield of topology called homotopy theory."

Through his research Turner is hoping to help understand further the connections between mathematics and the theoretical physics of superstring theory.