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Chemistry Professor Links Students to International Science Research
New York Ag Connection - 11/09/2017

Growing up in Karlsruhe, Germany, Chemistry Professor Andrea Holmes never imagined finding a perfect fit at Doane University--she had no idea where Nebraska was. But one thing led to the next, and the idea of a small, liberal arts college with a holistic approach to student education attracted her. After completing a Ph.D. at New York University, and post-doctoral work at Columbia University, she began her search for a faculty position, and stumbled on an ad in Chemical Engineering News for a faculty position of Organic Chemistry at Doane. Google showed only cornfields; curiosity and a phone interview led her to campus.

"I fell in love. I thought it was the most beautiful place I've ever seen," she said.

Fast-forward nine years, funded by a $248,000 National Science Foundation grant, she's created new opportunities for Doane undergrads to work on scientific projects in her home town at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT).

At least three Doane students per year--nine total--have already, or will, spend the summer months at KIT working with German scientists on nano-scale surface modifications that have wide-ranging applicability in health, energy and defense.

The research includes work on a nano-scaled detection tool. "By depositing sensing elements on a surface, chemical agents can be detected by first responders, soldiers, and forensic scientists," Holmes said.

Another application of the research helps reduce incidents of post-surgical infections by altering the surface of surgical implants so that they are resistant to the accumulation of bacterial biofilms.

There are also environmental applications. The fuel economy of a ship is severely compromised when biofilms including algae accumulate on the hull. Such toxic coatings can have consequences on aquatic marine life as well. By altering the surface of the hull of a ship so that it is resistant to the accumulation of algae and other organisms, fuel consumption is reduced. Energy efficiency is greatly enhanced, resulting in lower operational costs and less pollution, Holmes explained.

Doane senior Connor Long, a Biology major from Lincoln who spent last summer at KIT, said his experience helped him develop a sense of problem-solving and maturity through the exposure to cultural differences and similarities. "Through the opportunity to travel around Europe, conduct high-level research and make lasting friendships, this program shapes young individuals into critical scientists and culturally-competent adults," said Long.

Rachel Lukowicz, a senior majoring in Biology and Psychology from Marysville, Washington described her experience at KIT as a challenging opportunity to grow as a scientist and gain professional experience.

Nicholas Stolze, a junior from Norfolk majoring in biology with minors in chemistry and sociology, noted the challenges of working on research with scientists who spoke mostly German. "It was a wonderful opportunity to conduct scientific research at a high level while learning so much about yourself," he said.

The idea of applying for an NSF grant to send undergraduates to Germany wasn't something Holmes even though about until one of her students expressed high interest in pursuing a Fulbright Scholarship. After succeeding at earning an Early Investigative Career Award from NSF, she applied for funding from the National Institute of Health for funding to place her students at KIT during the summer months.

"We're all in it for educating the students and advancing science at same time," said Holmes. "I want them to increase their professional credentials, be able to go into graduate schools, advance science and continue to have impact on society. I also want them to gain appreciation for international collaboration.

"Just because there is an ocean in between us doesn't mean that we are apart in this world."

As for coming from a much larger university in a much larger city--Columbia in New York-- Holmes knows she landed in the right place.

"I really appreciate the concept of a liberal arts education, and being where I can make an impact. I love being able to 'cook a good meal in a small kitchen,'" she said.

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