A Kansas State University chemist is receiving a National Science Foundation CAREER award that will allow her to improve the laboratory experience for undergraduates and conduct research that could lead to clean and renewable sources of energy.
Christine Aikens, assistant professor of chemistry, received the award that supports the early career-development activities of teacher-scholars who most effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their organization.
"I am very happy to be receiving the National Science Foundation's CAREER award," Aikens said. "This grant will enable our group to begin new and exciting projects in both research and teaching, and it will dramatically affect the path of my career."
She is the fourth recipient from K-State's department of chemistry. Previous winners are: Christopher Culbertson, associate professor; Daniel Higgins, professor; and Christopher Levy, associate professor. That's a quarter of the department's graduate faculty, said Eric Maatta, who heads the department.
"Professor Aikens' receipt of a National Science Foundation CAREER Award is a tremendous recognition of her accomplishments and her future promise as a teacher-scholar," Maatta said "Her research will clarify details of how both plants and inorganic systems are able to use light to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, a process of fundamental importance to life and to future energy sources."
Aikens will receive nearly $600,000 over four years. Part of the award will benefit K-State students in Chemistry I laboratories as Aikens incorporates molecular modeling software to help them learn how to visualize molecular geometries.
She also will offer a yearly energy and sustainability workshop for middle school students where they can study solar power, biological energy and other technology related to renewable energy and materials. Aikens is making a special effort to include rural students from sparsely populated areas in the program.
With the award, Aikens also will look at photosystem II, a complex, naturally occurring protein that uses light to produce oxygen electrons and hydrogen ions from water. Her research group will analyze what it is about this protein's oxygen-evolving center that makes it an effective catalyst for water splitting. They will look for similar traits in synthetic materials. She said that this research will help develop clean and renewable sources of energy in the 21st century.
Aikens earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Oklahoma in 2000 and a doctorate from Iowa State University in 2005. She was a postdoctoral research fellow at Northwestern University before joining K-State in 2007.