AUSTIN, Texas — The W. M. Keck Foundation has awarded scientists at The University of Texas at Austin two grants totaling $1.5 million to develop a powerful, alternative method for cooling atoms and involve more undergraduate students in using new advanced technologies for research.
Known for supporting high-impact research with the potential to reshape scientific understanding, the Keck Foundation’s contributions to The University of Texas at Austin total more than $7 million with the two new grants announced this month.
“These two grants support our core missions as a public research university — pushing the boundaries of knowledge and expanding the experiential learning of our undergraduate students,” said UT Austin President Gregory L. Fenves. “I am grateful to the Keck Foundation for these significant grants, and I look forward to the discoveries they will enable us to make and the research experiences they will allow our undergraduates to have.”
A grant of $1 million from the Keck Foundation’s Science and Engineering Research Grant Program will support the “Ultra-Bright Atom Laser” project led by Mark Raizen, a professor in the Department of Physics. The project proposes a new method for cooling atoms in a gas phase toward absolute zero.
Until now, laser cooling has been the standard method for cooling atoms and was recognized by a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997. Raizen's method could be far more effective than the existing laser-cooling practice and result in an ultra-bright atom laser, predicted to surpass the current state-of-the-art by a factor of 100 million. Applications of the powerful new atom laser include innovations in nanoscience, tests of fundamental physics and new, noninvasive detection of gravitational anomalies, such as underground tunnels or oil and gas reservoirs.
The Keck Foundation’s Undergraduate Education Grant Program awarded $500,000 to support “Enhancing Experiential Learning with Technology Educators,” directed by Andrew Ellington, a professor in the Department of Molecular Biosciences. The project aims to engage doctoral-level “technology educators” in developing undergraduates’ expertise in using sophisticated technologies and instrumentation.
The goal is to better integrate UT Austin’s technology resources into teaching and research by providing students with a deep understanding of how ultramodern technological tools are used to advance research.
The project builds on the university’s successful Freshman Research Initiative (FRI), which offers first-year students in the College of Natural Sciences the opportunity to initiate and engage in authentic research experiences with faculty members and graduate students. The Texas Institute for Discovery Education in Science houses FRI and is directed by Dr. Erin Dolan, a collaborator on the Keck-funded project.
“We are excited to be working with the Keck Foundation and welcome this investment in the cutting-edge research and innovative education that The University of Texas at Austin is well known for,” said Linda Hicke, dean of the College of Natural Sciences.
Raizen is a global leader in atomic physics and ultra-cold atoms who has pioneered new methods for controlling atoms in the gas phase with broad-reaching applications for fundamental physics, nanoscience and medicine. He has developed a method for separating isotopes that could make them more readily available for lifesaving medical treatments, including new cancer therapies. He established The Pointsman Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the production and use of stable isotopes and radioisotopes in research and medical therapy.
Ellington has been involved with the Freshman Research Initiative since its inception 10 years ago, and he continues to be actively involved with the program, mentoring groups of freshmen as they explore biotechnologies involving nucleic acid and protein engineering. Potential applications include medical test kits for diseases and genetic therapies that boost the human immune system. He holds 16 patents and has helped translate his technologies into two startups.
The Los Angeles-based W. M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 by the late W. M. Keck, founder of Superior Oil Co. The foundation focuses its support on pioneering discoveries in science and engineering, medical research and undergraduate education.