Thursday, Sep. 24, 2009
Nearly two decades ago, Utah State University chemistry professor Vernon Parker welcomed Professor Jin-Pei Cheng of China’s Nankai University as a visiting professor in Parker’s USU research group. In the ensuing years, a partnership has grown between the two schools that includes cooperative research and a collaborative graduate program supported by the National Science Foundation.
Parker recently received a $667,000 NSF grant to fund his proposal, “International Collaboration in Chemistry.” At the same time, the project received about $150,000 in funding from the Chinese National Science Foundation to support Parker’s researcher partners at Nankai.
“Our research project challenges long-accepted dogma about detailed mechanisms of fundamental organic reactions,” says Parker, who joined USU in 1988. “The preliminary results of our work have fueled controversy. By collaborating in two different laboratories on two different continents, we hope to explore these new ideas and gain acceptance of the new concepts.”
Parker, Cheng and their research team assert that certain organic reactions are more complex than previously thought and they’ve developed kinetic tools to demonstrate their findings.
“If our findings are correct, they could be revolutionary,” Parker says. “We’ve encountered a lot of skepticism but I believe new ideas deserve a chance to be heard.”
Parker and Cheng’s partnership developed as the two published several papers together and their friendship grew.
“Professor Cheng rose through the ranks of distinguished scientists in China, became a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2001,” Parker says. “He served as the government’s vice minister of science and technology for several years.”
In 2004, Cheng invited Parker to visit China where the two first discussed the idea of forming a collaborative graduate program. Parker returned to Nankai University in 2006 as a Presidential Visiting Professor and, soon after, Cheng was appointed an adjunct professor in USU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Cheng and his Nankai colleague, Professor Xiao Zhu, subsequently joined Parker’s research project.
In 2007, Parker and USU chemistry professor Lance Seefeldt traveled to Nankai to meet with faculty and prospective students for the grad program. That fall, doctoral student Zhao Li joined Parker’s lab at USU and became the program’s first participant.
“I have spent two years each at Nankai and USU,” says Li. “I’ve found that taking classes at Nankai and doing research at USU is a wonderful combination for my graduate study, which has helped me learn more and meet with success more easily.”
Parker says the collaborative program continues to develop as faculty members of USU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and their peers at Nankai discuss the formation of research partnerships.
“Nankai is now sending graduate students who’ve completed at least two years of study in their program here to work with USU faculty members on these collaborative projects,” he says.
Five students, including Li, are currently on campus participating in the program. Along with Li, Jia Wang is a doctoral student and the remaining three, Yuan Chu, Weifang Hao and Zhiyong Yang, who completed their doctoral degrees at Nankai, are pursuing the program’s postdoctoral option. Wang and Yang are members of Seefeldt’s lab, Chu conducts research with professor Alvan Hengge and Hao is a member of Parker’s lab.
Wang chose to apply for the program, which requires that students complete their chemistry studies at Nankai in the top ten percent of their class, after hearing Seefeldt speak about his research.
“When Dr. Seefeldt made a visit to Nankai University, he gave a wonderful lecture about his research into the nitrogen fixation mechanism of nitrogenase,” he says. “His lecture deeply impressed me as research on nitrogenase is extremely meaningful for humankind.”
Seefeld’s research involves determining how enzymes known as nitrogenases convert nitrogen into life-sustaining compounds. The compounds are transferred to soil and food sources on which all plants and animals depend.
Selected from a number of applicants to the USU program, Wang says his background in organic chemistry initially made participation in Seefeldt’s biochemistry lab a challenge.
“The two disciplines are very different,” he says. “But I’m discovering the scientific world with new biological tools and I’m the guy who will have a background in both disciplines when I graduate from USU. I hope to find a research project that requires both organic chemistry and biochemistry when I pursue postdoctoral work in the future.”
Wang is enthusiastic about the work taking place in Seefeldt’s lab.
“Research on the nitrogen fixation mechanism of nitrogenase will help us understand the mechanism of photosynthesis, help to unravel the origin of life and reduce the increasingly serious energy crisis all around the world,” he says. “Although there’s been exciting progress in this research area, there are still a lot of questions left to solve. I plan to make every effort to delve into these questions during my research in Dr. Seefeldt’s lab. The future of this academic area is promising and splendid.”
Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, firstname.lastname@example.org