Greenhouse cash

USD Professor Receives $450,000 Grant for Environmental Research.

By Anastasia Macdonald

USD professor of chemistry and biochemistry Lauren Benz has been awarded a $450,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study ways of trapping and reducing greenhouse gases.
The grant funds Benz’s experimental research devoted to capturing carbon dioxide.

“We would use material organic frameworks to capture carbon dioxide, perhaps in cars and power plants, the biggest emitters of the gas,” Benz said. “The release of carbon dioxide is the question, scientists are developing ways that carbon dioxide could possibly be used for fuel.”

Benz discussed that while the results are hard to predict, her study would hopefully be able to answer environmental questions and inform the scientific community.

Global carbon dioxide emissions, usually just referred to as carbon emissions, have hit 4.67 metric tons per capita, and 77 percent of those greenhouse gases come from some form of carbon dioxide. An instrumental temperature record, rising sea levels and a decreased snow cover are the currently observed effects of climate change. The consequences of the American lifestyle are increasing exponentially, and there has been little movement in implementing the usage of more efficient energy sources.

In addition to supporting women in chemistry, this grant provides USD students the opportunity to partake in the experiment. This study also has the potential to be implemented in cars and plants in order to clean up emissions.

Benz explained that she applied for the grant largely because of her interest in giving students the opportunity to get involved in research. The focus of this project is on the surface chemistry of porous materials and their fundamental properties. Benz explained that maintaining simple, one variable experiments is the best learning tool for students. For example, to find a solution to acid rain, students will focus on the removal of sulfur, one of the main causes of acid rain, from molecules.

“The grant allows students to learn how to design experiments that can answer greater questions,” Benz said.

Benz explained that her emphasis on an environmental theme for her experimental work aims to raise awareness among her students.

“Chemists are in a good position to learn about the environment, especially new ways of generating energy,” Benz said.

Benz stated that her interest in chemistry began in high school because of one of her teachers.

“[My teacher] got very involved with students, conducted many experiments and would dress up for class,” Benz said.

Benz majored in chemistry at the University of Rhode Island, received a Ph.D. at UC Santa Barbara in inorganic chemistry and completed her postdoctoral at Harvard University before she began teaching at USD in 2009.

Benz discussed that the field of chemistry is a largely male dominated field, and she hopes to use this grant to support the involvement of women in science fields.

“I want to form a mentorship program to help students continue in science, specifically help women continue research in post Ph.D. programs, which would allow them to gain experience in research and then become a professor,” Benz said.

She explained that USD hires these post Ph.D. researchers to become professors, but the ratio is 75 percent male and 25 percent women, and she wants to help keep women in academia.

Only 10 percent of applicants nationwide receive this NSF grant. Three professors at USD have received the award within the past several years. This grant allows for a greater integration of material chemistry research opportunities for the USD science department, and provides research experience for undergraduate and postgraduate students.