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Research and Career Preparation Go Hand in Hand

Dr. Kolagani and students in the lab
Dr. Kolagani and students in the lab

Towson, Md. (October 12, 2011): The mission of the metropolitan university is carried out in many ways. With the support of a $200,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, Rajeswari Kolagani, Department of Physics, Astronomy, and Geosciences, is furthering Towson University’s metropolitan mission by performing research that will lead to the development of a useful new technology, while also impacting workforce development. 

Kolagani’s research, for the project “GOALI: Developing Uncooled Microbolometer Arrays Based on Thin Films of Hole Doped Rare-Earth Perovskite Manganite Materials,” is funded through NSF’s Grant Opportunities for Academic Liaisons with Industry, or GOALI, program. This program provides funding for university researchers to collaborate with industry for developing real world applications originating from academic research. Although the program requires collaboration with industry, the industry partner does not receive any federal funding.  However, this does not mean that the partner derives no benefit from the collaboration. GOALI awards fund true partnerships: collaborations in which both parties contribute to and benefit from the project at the same time. 

NSF funding is allowing Kolagani to carry out research she’s always wanted to do, employing ideas that she has pioneered and is now seeing “take off.” She’s developing infrared imaging detectors for real-world applications: night vision, medical imaging, and thermography to name a few. Such detectors do exist, but her work will lead to detectors that work at room temperature (known as ”uncooled detectors.”) These are significantly less expensive than other detectors that must be cooled to very low temperatures in order to achieve similar functions. Cost is a major factor in large scale applications; bringing cost down benefits industry and the public.  Kolagani’s challenge, in collaboration with her industry partner, Triton Services, Inc., is to tailor the materials properties and develop processes for device fabrication, leading to demonstration and evaluation of “microbolometer arrays” for uncooled IR imaging.

The immediate impact of the project on Towson University is its fit with the new Professional Science Master’s program in applied physics. The main focus of the program is to prepare students to enter the workforce in challenging technology positions. While participating in Kolagani’s research, students in this program will have the opportunity for real-world experiences in the partner company, and the partner company will have access to well-prepared employees in the future.

Grant administrators generally advise faculty members that the best grant-funded collaborations arise out of long-term, ongoing relationships. This collaboration began quite differently.  Kolagani and her colleague, Grace Yong (Faculty Research Associate) proactively sought industrial collaborators well in advance of their applying for the GOALI grant.  They prepared a PowerPoint presentation that they sent by email to many companies.  Several companies responded, but Triton Services showed the most interest and asked that the investigators work exclusively with them on this project.  “It’s not terribly difficult to sell CEOs on this kind of work,” Kolagani stated of her partnership search.  “They realize they’re investing in excellent employees for the future, making it easy for them to say yes even though there’s no immediate financial gain.”

Kolagani submitted proposals to her work to several NSF programs before being funded. Although previous proposals weren’t funded, the reviewers’ comments were encouraging, leading her to discuss her work with an engineering program officer. NSF engineering programs don’t generally support undergraduate research, so the program officer suggested she seek funding for her work as a GOALI proposal. Her proposal had finally landed in the right place at the right time. “The groundwork is so important,” she notes.

Kolagani recommends, in addition to being persistent and doing their homework, that faculty members take advantage of the services the university makes available to them in finding and applying for funding.  That’s an important part of the groundwork and can free scientists’ time to work on the science. 

Office of Sponsored Programs & Research
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Phone: 410-704-2236
Fax: 410-704-4494
E-mail: ospr@towson.edu

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