Sloan Grant supports NSU scientist’s research in nanomaterials

A Northwestern State University scientist who was selected for an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Grant utilized those funds to purchase a fluorescence spectroscopy instrument to support his research projects. Dr. Daniel Rivera-Vazquez, assistant professor in the School of Biological and Physical Sciences, directs a student research group that focuses on biosensors and water remediation, which both involve the creation and/or modification of nanomaterials.

Rivera-Vazquez is a material scientist with experience in the synthesis of nanoscale materials and characterizations using microscopy and spectroscopic techniques.

The spectroscopy instrument is being used to provide information regarding the identity and amount of samples based on its fluorescent properties. In materials science, it is used to provide an estimate of nanoparticle size and electronic properties, Rivera-Vazquez said.

“This instrument has a wide variety of applications,” he explained. “We will be using it to determine the presence of organic pollutants in water. Also, we will be using it to get an estimate of nanoparticle size. Other faculty will be using it for purposes that relate more closely to their respective research projects.

“In the case of biosensors, we are researching nanomaterials that can be tailored to detect specific biomarkers,” Rivera-Vazquez explained. “A biomarker is a molecule that appears at the onset of an event of biological importance, such as a stroke or cardiac injury. We are researching materials that are low-cost and at the same time highly effective. This is an important factor for us since we envision generating materials that will, in the long run, be scaled up to serve society.”

In other words, the research could eventually play a role in warning individuals they are at risk for stroke and/or heart attack. In some cases, biomarkers appear before the actual events, he said.

“At risk patients might benefit from at-home monitoring — similar to diabetic patients testing for glucose levels — of a biomarker of interest for their specific condition. We are envisioning something similar to the test strips used for monitoring glucose levels, applied to other processes in the body,” he said.

In the water remediation project, he is working to modify activated charcoal capable of removing a wide array of organic and inorganic materials from water. Activated charcoal modified with silver and copper nanoparticles acquires antimicrobial properties, Rivera-Vazquez said. He is researching questions regarding the modification of activated charcoal with a cost-effective material with high capabilities for water remediation.

“Water remediation is a term that can refer to the removal of undesired materials — waste, heavy metals, among other things — from sources of water,” he said. “The implications of this project are the development of cost-effective filters that can be used for the removal of microorganisms, as well as other pollutants from water sources. We are currently faced with an issue of providing clean water in many communities around the world, and hopefully the development of more efficient filters will contribute to addressing this issue.

“I am passionate about teaching in the classroom as well as the laboratory. I am currently working in the classroom teaching a wide range of courses in chemistry,” he said. Those courses range from first year chemistry to advanced undergraduate courses in physical chemistry and organic chemistry.

“My research interests focus on the synthesis of nanoscale materials for energy and biomedical applications. I worked on the synthesis of CaS nanostructures and studied its optical and electronic properties. This project led to the design of a low cost, fast, microwave assisted reaction which was patented in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. We also tested this material to study its effects on the replication rate of cancer cells. The results of this project have been submitted for publication in a peer reviewed journal,” Rivera Vazquez said.

The Social Science Research Council, with the support of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, awards Sloan Scholars Mentoring grants to Ph.D. alumni of the Sloan Minority Ph.D. Program. Grants are awarded in three categories that are designed to assist Sloan Scholar Ph.D.s in promoting their work through conference travel, seeking collaborative and learning opportunities to expand their skills as mentors and/or mentees and initiating projects that expand their research – all with the potential of helping those Ph.D.s become more established in their fields.

Since 1995, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has provided support for underrepresented minorities through its Minority Ph.D. and Sloan Indigenous Graduate Partnership programs, which aim to increase the diversity of higher education in STEM fields. In partnership with the Sloan Foundation, the Social Science Research Council developing the Sloan Scholars Mentoring Network serves the Sloan Scholar community through a strategic mix of professional development, mentoring and leadership training opportunities.

Information on NSU’s Department of Biological and Physical Sciences and degree programs offered is available at sciences.nsula.edu.