University of South Alabama, Office of Public Relations
March 3, 2009
Contact: Alice Jackson, Office of Public Relations, (251) 460-6639, (228) 209-6920
NSF Awards Major Grant to USA Chemist
Dr. Richard Sykora  
Dr. Richard Sykora
The National Science Foundation has selected Dr. Richard Sykora, assistant professor of chemistry at the University, as the recipient of one of its most prestigious awards for his proposed research involving the lanthanides, or rare earth, elements.

The five-year, $625,000 NSF Faculty Early Career Development Award makes Sykora   the sixth USA faculty member in 10 years to receive such an award. The award is one of the NSF’s highest honors, supporting the careers of outstanding junior faculty members, who are not tenured but who are most likely to become the academic leaders of the future.

“This award recognizes the excellence of Dr. Sykora’s research agenda, and it will not only allow Dr. Sykora to expand his research within the department of chemistry, but also to create undergraduate research opportunities for our students,” said Dr. Andrzej Wierzbicki, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Sykora, who is a synthetic, inorganic chemist, will explore ways to make new compounds from the 14 rare earth, metallic elements listed among the 117 elements of the periodic table. Although not widely known to the public, these elements have found mainstream uses in the fields of medicine and electronics.

“Presently, some lanthanide compounds are used as contrast agents in MRIs, in television screens and even to treat swimming pools,” said Sykora. “There has been a relatively small amount of research on the lanthanides. I was fortunate that my two years of postdoctoral work at Oak Ridge National Laboratory involved work with the lanthanides. Additional research is needed to explore more ways these elements, or their compounds, can be used.”

To be selected for an NSF Faculty Early Career Development Award, applicants must propose substantial research ideas for the laboratory as well as ways to incorporate their findings into educational programs inside the classroom and throughout their community.

In the laboratory, Sykora will develop new compounds from lanthanides, then study their structures as well as their chemical and physical properties. If successful, his research will lead to more efficient catalysts for use in fuel cells. Another one of his project goals is to investigate the luminescence properties of his novel compounds, which have potential applications in sensors. He will collaborate on these research areas with colleagues at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and at North Carolina A&T State University.

“There’s no doubt the connection to catalysts for fuel cells strengthened my proposal because the NSF always wants grant applications to be timely, and currently a major focus is on energy research. It also helps that relatively few people are studying lanthanides,” explained Sykora.

Sykora, who teaches general chemistry, sophomore-level quantitative analysis and senior-level inorganic chemistry courses, will share his findings with his classes as well as through seminars, workshops and professional journals. The University’s Science in Motion program will be used to share his research with area teachers and students.

Sykora completed his undergraduate work at Troy University, and he earned his doctorate at Auburn University.

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