University of Scranton Professor Awarded Six-Figure National Science Foundation Grant

Bryan Crable, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology at The University of Scranton, was awarded a $198,265 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for a two-year study of the impact of plastic debris on the physiology of freshwater microorganisms in Lake Lacawac. In addition to Dr. Crable’s role as principal investigator, the research project will involve and train approximately eight undergraduate students in field, laboratory and computer simulated investigations.

According to Dr. Crable, microplastics are plastic particles less than 5 millimeters in size that are a common pollutant that have seen widespread accumulation in the environment since World War II. 

“This type of research is important because we really don’t have a good understanding of how plastics influence ecosystems,” said Dr. Crable. “For the longest time, we thought that microplastics didn’t really impact the local ecosystem. Over the last five to ten years, we have begun to get a better understanding of their impact. In the last few years, researchers have discovered there are microbes that degrade plastics and, although that can be beneficial, the overall impact has to be studied much more.”

According to Dr. Crable, comparatively, there has been lots of research on the effects of plastic debris in marine environments, but there has been very little research in freshwater environments. 

“Lake Lacawac is only about 30 minutes away from campus and is a near pristine freshwater watershed. The lake was privately owned for a few hundred years. There has been essentially no development on the lake and there is no known microplastic intrusion,” said Dr. Crable. “Our experiment will use water from the lake in microcosms that we establish in a lake side field lab.  In the first year, we will look at microbial communities which colonize plastics versus natural debris such as leaf litter.  In the second year of the study, we will analyze the impacts of different types of plastics on microbial communities.”

The project will provide full-time summer research opportunities to two to three students each summer for two years. Dr. Crable noted that students will gain experience using state-of-the-art software programs for analyzing microbial communities as well as learn critical programming languages used for statistical analyses.

“One of the great things about the University is that undergraduates are doing actual research projects,” said Dr. Crable.

“The benefit undergraduates get out of research, especially working on larger projects in a faculty member’s labs, is that they get to take ownership over some part of a project. The students are able to take the seeds of an idea and move it forward – to design the necessary experiments, carry them out and analyze the results to answer a question,” said Dr. Crable, who noted that students also have the possibility to present their studies at conferences, with some undergraduates having their research published in an academic journal. 

Through the research project, Dr. Crable will also develop an advanced undergraduate curriculum on microplastics, which will be integrated into the Special Topics in Biology – Environmental Microbiology course.

Dr. Crable joined the faculty at Scranton in 2018. His research focuses on the fields of microbial physiology, environmental microbiology and microbial biotechnology. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Saint Vincent College, his master’s degree from Duquesne University and his Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Oklahoma. In 2010, Dr. Crable was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship by the Institute for International Education to conduct research at the University of Wageningen in The Netherlands.

University of Scranton Professors Awarded Grant for Research Equipment

Michael Fennie, Ph.D., Arthur Catino, Ph.D., and Nicholas Sizemore, Ph.D., all associate professors of chemistry at The University of Scranton, were awarded a $362,773 National Science Foundation (NSF) Major Research Instrumentation grant. The grant will allow the University to purchase a Bruker 400 MHz nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer, which will be used by undergraduates, graduate students and faculty at Scranton in both chemistry courses and research projects. Professors from local colleges and researchers from area companies will also have access to the state-of-the-art equipment, as will area high school students through an outreach program included as part of the NSF funded proposal.

“NMR spectroscopy is central to modern chemistry research. This instrument uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to determine the structures of molecules, giving us information about their physical properties and reactivity,” said Dr. Fennie, the principal investigator on the grant. “We need to train our students to be competent scientists once they enter graduate school, or start a career in industry or at a lab. Having hands-on research experience using real-world instrumentation at Scranton is what makes a difference in our outcomes.”

NMR spectroscopy shares the same theoretical principles as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) used in healthcare – only for molecules, explained Dr. Fennie, which he said also provides a good conceptual foundation for pre-med students. The new NMR equipment, with much-improved detection and throughput capabilities, will increase the productivity of faculty research and enhance the research-training of undergraduate and master’s students as they prepare for STEM careers in academia or industry.

NMR spectroscopy, using older equipment, is already included in more than half a dozen chemistry courses at Scranton, including organic chemistry labs II and III, Instrumental Analysis Lab, Forensic Chemistry Lab, and Advanced Inorganic Lab. The new equipment will enhance the students’ exposure in courses as well as supplement their research projects.

“Our current instrument allows for only a single sample to be loaded at a time for analysis, and each analysis takes a long time to complete, making it impractical to obtain individual NMR data for each student in larger lab courses, such as sophomore-level organic chemistry. The new equipment allows for auto-loading of multiple samples at a time, and the time required for each analysis is much shorter, enabling students in these labs to prepare their own samples, submit them to the NMR queue, and then receive their own data, which is getting closer to what it is like in an actual research setting,” said Dr. Fennie. “Getting that training early on is only going to be more helpful to our students’ development as scientists.”

The technology can also be used for broad research areas ranging from medicinal chemistry, such as studies pertaining to peptide folding and natural products, to experiments for the synthesis of molecules that can be used in OLED displays.

“I couldn’t be more proud of Dr. Michael Fennie and his colleagues at The University of Scranton, and this investment in our students and promise it has to bridge the classroom to the work room,” said Rep. Matt Cartwright. “Giving industry partners access to this tool will serve as an enticement for them to stay in the region and grow our STEM-related job market. I also applaud the collaboration among our higher learning institutions and secondary schools, I look forward to what new research, new ideas and new scientists may come from it.”

The new equipment will be used for collaborative and independent research projects with faculty members at area colleges, such as King’s College, Penn State Scranton and Keystone College, as well as for studies at area businesses, such as Schott Glass, The Azek Company and Process Technologies and Packaging.

Dr. Fennie is especially interested in how the new equipment can be used discover new reactions and better understand how these reactions actually work.

“The NMR will allow us to collect data on how fast a reaction proceeds and the intermediates the reaction might go through. That is important for developing new chemical processes, and optimizing reactions so that we can use less resources in our experiments. In other words, making the chemistry more sustainable,” said Dr. Fennie.

In addition, the University will work with teachers at Scranton High School, West Scranton High School, Honesdale High School, Mid Valley Secondary Center and MMI Preparatory School to bring their students to campus to learn more about the scientific uses of NMR spectroscopy.

The NMR spectrometer will be installed during the University’s winter break and intersession. Faculty, and then students, would be trained in the use of the new equipment in late January and during the spring semester.

Dr. Fennie joined the faculty at Scranton in 2012. He earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Canisius College and his doctorate in organic chemistry from the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Catino joined the faculty at Scranton in 2013. He earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Franklin and Marshall College and his doctorate in organic chemistry from the University of Maryland. Dr. Sizemore joined the faculty at Scranton in 2015. He earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Case Western Reserve University and his doctorate in organic chemistry from the University of California, Irvine.