Elon professor Joel Karty awarded NSF research grant

The National Science Foundation has awarded Elon University chemistry professor Joel Karty a three-year, $181,000 research grant to work with undergraduates assisting him in his ongoing study of two types of molecular phenomena that govern chemical stability.

Elon University professor Joel Karty

It is the largest National Science Foundation grant ever received by an Elon professor.

Resonance and inductive/field effects, both of which play significant roles in a variety of chemical systems, have been a focus of Karty’s personal research for much of the past decade. However, among chemists, there is a limited understanding of how resonance and inductive/field effects impact chemical stability when the two contribute simultaneously to the same system.

To study these effects, students working with Karty will carry out quantum theoretical calculations using specialized software, and will also synthesize certain molecules for testing in a gas-phase ion chemistry lab at the College of William & Mary.

The impact of Karty’s work may not be seen immediately, but it conceivably has significant implications on major issues of today, such as cancer research. One of the chemical systems Karty has identified for study has been implicated in cancer formation, and a second system is closely related to metabolism processes.

“This award means a lot to me, because it provides real validation of my work by experts in the field,” Karty said of the grant. “It’s beyond just saying ‘we like your research,’ as there’s a lot of good science out there that does not get funded.”

The grant will assist the Department of Chemistry in several key ways. By supporting three additional undergraduate researchers for each of the next three summers, Karty believes it will help sustain a “critical mass” of summer research students, triggering enthusiasm that may bolster the number of applicants to graduate school.

Work by students also will be presented at annual conferences for the American Chemical Society, the National Conference on Undergraduate Research, and Elon’s Spring Undergraduate Research Forum.

On a department level, Karty hopes the grant, which funds the purchase of two new high-performance computers, will eliminate a “bottleneck” in the labs where it sometimes takes up to a week for a computer to run complex molecular calculations for just one of many ongoing projects.

“This in and of itself doesn’t put Elon on the map, but it does help make us more noticeable, especially to the NSF,” he said. “Hopefully it opens the door a little bit wider for future successes of other Elon faculty obtaining NSF grants.”

Karty earned his doctorate from Stanford University in 2001 and published his first textbook, The Nuts and Bolts of Organic Chemistry: A Student’s Guide to Success, in 2005. A second book, Organic Chemistry: Principles and Mechanisms, is in progress.

Karty was selected last fall as a Senior Faculty Research Fellow for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 academic years.