Science Faculty Receive Prestigious Cottrell College Science Awards

Science Faculty Receive Prestigious Cottrell College Science Awards
Peter Oelschlaeger, Philip Lukeman, Shantanu Sharma and Alex Small are winners of the Cottrell College Science Award.

Four faculty members in the Chemistry and Physics departments have been awarded prestigious awards from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement. Shantanu Sharma, in Chemistry, and Alex Small, in Physics, received awards of $39,584 and $28,213 in the fall. Philip Lukeman and Peter Oelschlaeger, both in Chemistry, received $35,684 and $37,432 in the spring.

About 80 Cottrell College Science Awards are given annually to new faculty to “support significant research that contributes to the advancement of science,” according to the organization. The grants promote interdisciplinary research and undergraduate student participation.

“These awards recognize four of our best teacher-scholars, faculty who integrate nationally recognized research into their teaching. Cal Poly Pomona students will benefit from working with such successful faculty,” says College of Science Dean Donald Straney. “It is rare to have so many awards made in the same year to faculty on the same campus.  Our departments have been very successful in hiring the very best faculty in their fields.”

In 2006, Chemistry Professor James Rego received a Cottrell award for his research on liquid crystal sensors. The four recent awards, along with Rego's, make the university eligible to apply for a multi-investigator award from the Research Corporation. Providing larger grant funding, the multi-investigator awards support interdisciplinary research projects from a team of faculty from different scientific fields.

“This level of funding by the Research Corporation further supports the fact that we are engaged in high-impact scientific research with undergraduates,” Sharma says.

He and his students study a fundamental biological process: the association of antiviral peptides, which are small proteins, with their complementary viral protein partners. By coupling the results of advanced computer simulations and sophisticated experiments, they gather information that will aid in the design of antiviral drugs to better combat HIV and influenza.

Small's research interests come into play as engineers try to create smaller and faster circuits, which are the backbone of virtually every electronic device. Tiny circuits, like those found in cell phones, are created with invisible ultraviolet light, which will be more difficult to work with as researchers try to make smaller devices.

Using calculations and computer simulations, Small and his students gain insight on how molecules interact, react and attach to one another. With that information, they'll try to predict whether and how it's possible to create nano-size circuits using visible light, which has a longer wavelength but is more accessible and works with mature, commercially available technologies.

Light and nanotechnology are also of interest to Lukeman, who is exploring DNA nanoswitches. Nanoswitches are used in biological systems to change functions — turn on, turn off, increase intensity, decrease intensity — and have important uses in pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries.

Currently, scientists use pipettes to control the nanoswitches, which is somewhat clumsy, Lukeman says. His research project explores replacing the pipetting action with pulses of light, which are more precise, to activate and deactivate the switches.

As the cause of longer-lasting illnesses and even death, antibiotic resistance has been called one of the world's most pressing public health problems. Oelschlaeger is part of a large community of scientists that is combating these drug-resistant bacteria. His approach is to study enzymes in bacteria called metallo-beta-lactamases, or MBLs, that have the ability to resist antibiotics.

“These enzymes can evolve and become more efficient. Our goal is to better understand these processes in order to make better antibiotics and MBL inhibitors that combat antibiotic resistance,” Oelschlaeger says.

Using X-ray diffraction equipment, Oelschlaeger will create 3-D models of the protein structure and observe the physical changes of MBLs as a result of their evolutions. The Cottrell award will also allow him to collaborate with colleagues at the University of Bristol in England.

For more information about the Cottrell College Science Awards, visit