Faculty Research Interests

Dr. Ben Bahr: "The Amazing Brain and How it Strives to Fight Off Dementia and Injuries"

The >500,000 gigabyte hard drive floating in your skull is a huge challenge to study, the brain being the most complicated memory-encoding machine known. In the Bahr Lab, researchers maintain brain explants in culture for months to investigate vulnerable neuronal connections that are responsible for learning, memory, and creativity. Bahr’s team focuses on synaptic vulnerability that contributes to dementia risk factors, thereby improving our understanding of the synaptopathy initiated by seizure- and stroke-type excitotoxicity, TBI, military blast exposures, and brain aging – all linked to elevated risks of dementia. The research integrates explant models with transgenic animal models to study different dementias, using cell signaling, bioinformatics, and drug design methods to determine pathogenic cascades involved and to identify repair mechanisms and therapeutic strategies against the mild cognitive impairment (MCI) to dementia continuum.

Brief Bio: Dr. Bahr is the William C. Friday Chair and Professor at UNCP.  His Ph.D. in chemistry from University of California–Santa Barbara identified a target for the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia. His postdoctoral training was at the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, University of California–Irvine. He has presented his team’s research in 18 countries, has over 150 publications and patents, and leads UNCP as a partner institution of the Duke-UNC Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. His honors include several mentoring awards for his work with postdocs, graduate students, and invaluable undergraduate researchers who received NSF, Glaxo Women in Science, NCBiotech, and NC Space/NASA Grant Scholarships, NIH RISE Fellowships, NCBiotech Internships, and the Timothy Ritter and Marie Amero Endowed Research Scholarship.

Dr . William Brandon: “Experimental Physics – (a) Magneto-optics and (b) Laser spark”

 A) Magneto-Optics: The ongoing evolution and increasing sensitivity of magneto-optical polarimetric measurement techniques continue to attract attention.  Applications include optical modulators, isolators, and circulators, along with field sensors, spectroscopy, and astrophysical probes.  In exploring various high precision measurement schemes to measure Faraday rotation in air, we developed a balanced dual laser beam phase sensitive photodetection apparatus to measure laser modulation induced by an alternating current magnetic field.  With its very small Verdet constant, air simply serves as a convenient test case.  The ultimate goal is to measure vacuum birefringence (i.e. Voigt Effect in vacuum), an area of interest in the realm of quantum electrodynamics.  A similar, although significantly more sophisticated technique might qualify as a probe for one of the proposed candidate particles of dark matter - the axion.

B) Laser Spark: Some undergraduate student research topics are provided by the humble “laser spark”.  Laser sparking can be achieved by simply focusing a high-powered laser pulse in air.  The spark (plasma) ensues due to the fact that many photons can act together in small regions of space and therefore create an electric field whose energy exceeds the binding energy of the atmospheric molecular constituents.  However, a rigorous solution of the laser spark characterization, and some particular aspects involving plasma evolution, remain elusive.  Some of the difficulties can be traced to the lack of precise knowledge concerning the threshold parameters concerning the onset of plasma ignition due to the probabilistic nature of this process.  Direct applications include laser-induced ignition to improve the efficiency for combustion engines, aerodynamic drag reduction via the mitigation of sharp boundary layer transitions for aircraft at supersonic speeds, and plasma stealth - a proposed process exploiting ionized gas to reduce radar cross sections.


Dr. Paul Flowers: "Microscale Analytical Spectroelectrochemistry"

Spectroelectrochemistry (SEC) involves simultaneous application of spectral and electrochemical techniques, most commonly involving the measurement of a sample's spectral properties while it is being electrolyzed. SEC methods have long been used to investigate fundamental aspects of electrolysis and related chemical processes. More recently, these techniques have been increasingly employed as purely analytical tools to quantify chemical substances in various sample matrices.  Such analytical applications of SEC are appealing as they can provide several advantages compared to existing methodologies, including shorter analysis times, reduced chemical waste, and decreased cost.

My students and I work towards two separate but related research objectives:

  • to design, fabricate and characterize devices for the spectroelectrochemical analysis of microscale samples (volumes on the order of microliters);
  • to develop SEC-based assays for small molecules of biomedical relevance (drugs, metabolites, etc.) 

Students engaged in this research will develop their skills in basic lab techniques, literature research, and oral and written communication, in addition to gaining hands-on experience with various modern instruments including ultraviolet/visible and infrared spectrometers and electrochemical analyzers. 

Dr. Len Holmes: “Chemistry, biotechnology”

Much of my work at the university is related to regional economic development. Having created the UNCP Biotechnology Business and Training Center ( www.uncp.edu/biotech ), I am very interested in developing innovative ways to catalyze the development of biotechnology and other knowledge industries into rural Southeastern North Carolina. Working with biotech and other companies, universities and community colleges, I am focused on building the infrastructure for creating technology transfer through technology workshops and partnerships. This project is broad, and would be of great benefit to undergraduates giving them perspective on how the economy is tied to science/technology. Lastly, the biotechnology project collaborations with Dr. Mandjiny would be extremely benefited by the inclusion 1 full-time BS-level (perhaps Masters) laboratory technician. A second biotechnology project - Optimization of small-scale batch culture of marine actinomycetes:. The first order of business will be to learn about optimizing the growth conditions of the marine organism, Actinomycetes. The overall goal of the microbial fermentation component of the research will be to produce Actinomycetes expressing the desired product.

Dr. Siva Mandjiny: “Affinity Separation Methods ”

Affinity separation has become the preferred method for purifying proteins and other macromolecules from complex biological fluids. It is a well established technique that continues to find new applications in pharmaceutical industries. Many types of molecules can serve as ligands including antibodies, antigens, enzyme inhibitors, receptors etc. Students will be engaged in research on affinity separation of proteins. This research will focus specifically on solid matrices such as membranes and gel beads. Membranes will include nylon and PVA etc., and gel beads will include Sepharose and silica. Membranes will be tested in filtration mode for the binding capacity of the protein and the gel beads will be tested in a chromatographic column for the binding capacity. The results obtained from this study will explain the comparative analysis of the membranes with the gel beads in terms of affinity constant and the adsorption capacity. The data will be useful in the downstream processing especially in the pharmaceutical industries.

Dr. Mark McClure: “NMR Spectroscopy of Cobalt Complexes ”

My research interests focus on the application of NMR spectroscopy to the study cobalt(III) coordination compounds containing multidentate ligands. These types of systems represent an interesting challenge from an NMR standpoint. For ligands that contain carbon atoms, C-13 NMR can sometimes be used to determine the overall geometry of the complex ion. However, the H-1 NMR of these systems is often complex. This complexity arises from the fact that coordination restricts rotation about the carbon-carbon bonds of the ligand and therefore introduces nonequivalence in hydrogen atoms attached to the same carbon. As a result, even a simple ethylene linkage joining two donor atoms can contain up to four nonequivalent protons. This often results in very complex splitting patterns, and the interpretation of such spectra requires two-dimensional NMR techniques such as COSY and NOESY.

Dr. Tikaram Neupane: "Optical Properties of Atomic Layers"

My research focuses on fundamental studies and the technological application of photonic devices based on novel quantum materials through the characterization of linear and nonlinear optical properties. The transition metal dichalcogenide (TMDC, MX2; M = W, Mo; X = Te, Se, S) atomic layers and their heterostructures are promising quantum materials because they have unique nonlinear optical characteristics of both parametric and nonparametric intermediate transitions. Also, they have enormous scientific merits which include layer-dependent direct/indirect transitions with strong-orbit coupling and band nesting, large exciton binding energy between electronic and optical band gaps, inversion symmetry and asymmetry, strong covalent bonding within intralayer and weak van der Waals force between interlayers, etc. The investigation of third-order optical nonlinearity especially on the polarity and magnitude of nonlinear absorption (NLA) and nonlinear refraction (NLR) of these atomic layers is crucial for the Q-switch, optical power limiter, and all-optical switching & modulators. These atomic layers will be tested for the optical application of saturable Q-switching and power limiting via the Z-scan and I-scan technique. In addition, All-optical switching is based on phase modulation which could be studied through cross-phase modulation and spatial self-phase modulation (SSPM). However, cross-phase modulation tends to have an optical time delay. A novel all-optical switching device could be proposed using TMDC atomic layer with the monochromatic light via SSPM, which eliminates the time delay. Therefore, TMDC atomic layers are considered the best nonlinear optical components for technical applications which have the lightest payload for any space mission. Furthermore, my research explores other quantum materials (such as topological superconductors, 2D magnetic materials, topological materials, etc) for new device applications in nanoelectronics spintronics, future computing, and energy harvesting.

Dr. Rachel Smith: “Organic Synthesis and Biodiesel Productions”

My research interests are in developing new reactions of organic (carbon-based) molecules with the eventual aim of applying these new synthetic methods to the preparation of drugs.

• One important challenge in the chemical synthesis of drugs is stereocontrol. Just as our two hands are non-superimposable mirror images of each other, each chemical compound used as a drug also has a mirror image. Our bodies interact with these two mirror images in different ways. One way of controlling which hand of a product is formed is to use a chiral auxiliary, a temporary group added to a molecule which has it’s own handedness. Part of my research involves using chiral auxiliaries in reactions to control the stereochemistry (handedness) of the reaction.

• Another research interest is focused on tandem cyclizations between unsaturated aldehydes and Meldrum’s acid. Tandem means two processes happening in a row and in this reaction, there are actually two different reactions taking place consecutively.

Dr. Roland Stout: "Physical chemistry; environmental chemistry”

I am interested in three different areas of research, Environmental Chemistry, Chemical Kinetics and Quantum Mechanical Calculations. Over the past few years my most active area has been Environmental Chemistry, specifically the chemistry of natural water systems. I am in the process of collecting data to set baseline levels for a number of properties of the Lumber River. In the future we can compare current values with base line measurements to see how this system is changing and, hopefully, identify the environmental stresses on this river. A related area is the study of mercury levels in the river system seeking to identify how mercury is transported through the system. These projects involve making measurements on the river both from the banks and from canoes, and for acquiring water and sediment samples to bring back to our laborites for measurement. A planned extension of these projects it to sample plants and other organisms growing in the flood plain of the Lumber River. This project t is open to students at all levels of chemistry. I am also interested in the kinetics of complex reaction systems including oscillating reactions. Most recently I have been studying the electrical potential in density driven, physically oscillating systems and have shown that they are examples of a bistable, physical oscillator and are NOT consistent with the more complex chemically oscillating systems. I am also interested in quantum mechanically modeling reaction systems. This involves mostly computer work, doing quantum calculations. The last system I have worked on is N5+ looking at its molecular geometry energetic. We have also begun but not finished mapping the potential energy surface to eventually determine its decomposition pathway. Both the kinetics and quantum mechanical projects need the background provided by at least one semester of physical chemistry and enrollment in the second semester.

Dr. Cornelia Tirla: “Organic Chemistry”

Biodiesel Production from Fatty Acids using Solid Acid Catalyst: Currently biodiesel is produced through the transesterification of waste vegetable oil using methanol and potassium hydroxide. Potassium hydroxide, once used in the reaction, is eliminated with the waste products. This can prove to be an expensive method of producing biodiesel as potassium hydroxide is not recovered from the wastes and a new batch must be added for subsequent reactions. This also sparks the debate as to whether or not biodiesel is a cost-effective and efficient fuel source when compared to fossil fuels. Solid acid catalysts are a possible solution to this problem. Removal of a solid acid catalyst is easier and the starting material is fatty acids instead of oil. This research will focus on the synthesis of biodiesel from fatty acids in the presence of solid acid catalyst. Student opportunities: Fall/Spring (2) ; Summer (2)

Production of Ethanol from Sweet Potato Remnants: Ethanol can be produced from large variety of biomass materials. The purpose of this project is to develop a protocol for the production of ethanol from sweet potato waste. As a starting point, the starch was hydrolyzed in acidic conditions and a glucose solution was obtained. The raw material is also a rich source of beta-carotene, a food supplement used in the cellular biosynthesis of the vitamin A. As part of this project, protocols will be developed to extract value added beta-carotene. In conclusion, this research addresses the increasing demand for alternative sources of energy and demonstrates complementary uses of agricultural waste biomass.