Dr. Bill Collins (middle) discusses the project with his students.

Students at Fort Lewis College are now doing cutting-edge chemistry research, thanks to a three-year grant that puts undergraduate researchers at the forefront of materials science exploration.
The project delves into ways to design, synthesize, and make practical use of carbon nanotubes, a naturally occurring form of carbon shaped into microscopic tubular structures "with truly, truly amazing properties," says Chemistry professor Bill Collins.
"Plastics have revolutionized the way we do everything, and this is really taking plastics to a new level," explains Collins, the project's principal investigator. "By looking at the deeper properties of new nano-sized architectures and molecules, we can then find uses to help solve modern problems such as energy consumption, photovoltaic cells, molecular machines, new devices, and new materials. It's where chemistry meets material science."
The research project gives undergraduate students experiences and exposure to laboratory techniques and tools -- including new equipment the Chemistry Department is purchasing for this study -- they would not normally encounter until graduate school.
"This is an exciting grant for our students, the Chemistry Department, and Fort Lewis College," says Chemistry Department Chair Les Sommerville. "Students will have the opportunity to work on cutting-edge materials and nanotechnology research with Dr. Collins. Most students don’t see this kind of research until they get to graduate school or beyond."
"This is research on a new process that has never been done," adds Collins. "Students will get a large breadth of experience, but also they'll also be able to study the properties of the materials they're making, and perhaps even find ways to put them to use in actual devices. "
The project is backed by a three-year, $282,000 Department of Defense grant for Title III minority-serving institutions, aiming to encourage more under-represented minorities to pursue careers in the sciences. While participation in this research is open to any student, the Chemistry Department especially will be targeting Native American and other minority students.
"The materials science and materials chemistry fields are really exploding right now," says Collins. "It's a very exciting time in the field, and there'll be a lot job prospects in the next ten or twenty years. So students who get exposed to this early on, who get excited and engaged, will have a big advantage getting into grad schools, internships, and positions in industry."
Learn more about the Chemistry Department at Fort Lewis College.