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Rising Star Dr. Benjamin Martin

Texas State chemistry professor earns $400,000 CAREER grant

Dr. Benjamin Martin Photo

Chemistry professor Dr. Benjamin Martin’s work has caused a big chain reaction in the College of Science at Texas State.

Through Martin’s $400,000 award from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry will be able to accelerate its research and expose hundreds of elementary students to the field.

The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program grant recognizes professors with potential in the early years of their careers who most effectively integrate research and education within their organization’s mission.

Martin is only the second Texas State professor to receive the prestigious grant, which will be disbursed from 2008 to 2013.

“The goal of the grant is to encourage new faculty to be motivated in research and education,” Martin says. “The grant will enable me to accelerate the pace of the research and give me the ability to bring more people into the research.”

Martin and his students work with sets of metal compounds with sulfur and selenium. They mix, melt and analyze the results of changing the different compounds. Their ultimate goal is to understand how to induce controlled chemical changes in these compounds, a development that could lead to the reduction of acid rain and a specialized type of battery.

Young Scientists at Work

While the potential of Martin’s research has drawn the attention of the scientific community, Martin is also working to engage the minds of children in the San Marcos, Texas, community. He plans to use a portion of his CAREER grant to grow young students’ interest in chemistry at the grassroots level — through family science nights at local elementary schools.

If the selection at an average bookstore is any indication, the field of chemistry could use a champion, Martin says.

“If you look around at a bookstore in the science section, you’ll see lots of books on biology, a medium-size section on physics devoted to quantum mechanics and astronomy, and probably one book on chemistry — and it’s a textbook,” Martin says. “We want to encourage a greater interest in chemistry.”

The first family science night was held at Crockett Elementary School in April 2008. Each family was provided a chemistry kit containing common household products, such as ammonia and baking soda.

“The first activity allows them to see what a chemical reaction is and teaches them how to be able to tell it is occurring,” Martin says.

Texas State chemistry students help parents and children conduct the experiments. “About 15 university student volunteers help around 60 participating families,” Martin says.

Fostering an interest in chemistry at the elementary level is so important, Martin says, because by the time that students’ science test scores are tracked they are already far behind the other subjects.

“Our goal is to get undergraduate scientists-in-training to work with these young students and get them involved early on,” Martin says. “We want to follow these kids from elementary school to middle school and grow the program and keep these kids exposed to chemistry all the way through high school.”

An Inspiration in the Field

Martin began teaching chemistry at Texas State in 2003. As an assistant professor, he teaches introductory chemistry and senior inorganic chemistry.

He earned his bachelor’s degree from Truman State University in Missouri and his doctorate from Penn State, where he studied functional nanomaterials. Martin completed his post-doctoral research in solid-state synthesis at Colorado State University.

His varied scientific background and engaging teaching style have won him many a student fan at Texas State.

Student researcher Steve Cheney, who took General Chemistry II with Martin, says working with the professor has been a great experience.

“It is a lot of fun working with someone who has such a great amount of knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject,” Cheney says. “When I ask a question about how a certain reaction works, Dr. Martin explains in great detail what happens and why it happens. Although sometimes it may take a while for me to understand, he is very confident and enthusiastic about what he is teaching, which makes working in the lab a lot of fun.”

Momentum for Research

The CAREER grant will benefit Martin, Cheney and the rest of the research team. In addition to funding family science nights, the award will fund major equipment purchases and student research salaries in Texas State’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

One of those pieces of equipment is a new glove box, an argon-filled chamber designed to allow scientists to work with materials within the box without the presence of oxygen. Like something you’d see in a sci-fi movie, attached to one side of the glass box is a pair of thick rubber gloves, which are used to perform experiments on sensitive materials within the box.

Martin’s current glove box, which dates back to 1976, is older than his students.

The other new piece of equipment to be purchased with Martin’s grant is an electrochemical system that will allow Martin and his fellow researchers to test products to see how easily ions will move through them. He likens it to a battery test station.

Cheney believes the new equipment will help speed up the research he is working on with Martin.

“The work we are doing on metal sulfides is the very early stages of finding a catalyst, which could potentially help clean gas emissions in engines,” Cheney says. “We are doing the very basic part of creating pure compounds. In order to do this, we need extremely good equipment.”

A Life-changing Experience

In addition to family science nights and major equipment purchases, the funding from the CAREER grant will enable Martin to add two undergraduates and one graduate student to his research team each year, for a total of 10 undergrads and five grads funded during the life of the grant.

“More than half of the budget will be devoted to their salaries,” Martin says. “This will let students continue their research over the summer instead of having to wait tables to help pay tuition.”

The experience is sure to be a great résumé booster and improve students’ chances for being accepted into graduate school, Martin says.

In Cheney’s case, the research has sparked his interest in a new field. After taking one of Martin’s chemistry courses, the undeclared sophomore from Round Rock decided to stick around the Chemistry Building.

“The lab is the main reason I signed up for organic chemistry this semester. Although I still am not sure of my career path, the ideas discussed in lab sometimes mirror my thoughts outside the classroom,” Cheney says. “Almost every day I come across something in everyday life where I ask myself, ‘How was this made?’ or ‘How does this work?’ When I know the answer, it’s because of things I have learned from Dr. Martin and his lab. Working in his lab has motivated me to find answers to these questions by taking more chemistry classes.”

The Future of Martin’s Research

Martin’s research involves materials that are sulfur- and selenium-based, a class that is extremely important as catalysts, semiconductors and optical materials. In addition to their use as catalysts to clean fuels to reduce emissions, potential applications for Martin’s research include their use as phosphors (light-emitting materials) and as battery electrodes.

Hydrosulfurization, or the removal of sulfur from fuels, has the potential to reduce pollutants causing acid rain, which results from the combustion of sulfur in fuels and eventually ends up in the atmosphere. The best catalysts in use are metal sulfides, which have many similarities to the compounds Martin is studying.

“Some of the compounds we make are also lithium-based,” Martin says. “These materials may act as storage electrodes and may be useful for specialized lithium ion batteries, such as very low resistance batteries.”

Low resistance batteries won’t release heat. “A typical lithium cell phone battery gets very hot during use due to resistance. Our materials may be much more efficient, but they will also weigh a ton,” he says. “I imagine an organization like the army or NASA [would have a need for] a battery that lasts a very long time with very low resistance.”

But first, Martin must determine how easily ions move through the materials. “No one has tested these materials to determine the energy it takes to move ions through them,” Martin says. “I’m very interested in how they work. No one really knows.”

Understanding the Material

But while Martin’s research has very real applications, the purpose, at this point, is not outcomes.

“My dream is to focus on understanding the materials as much as possible,” Martin says. “I selected this class of structures that somebody found, documented they existed and then left them alone. Basically, nothing is really known about them.”

Martin will take the materials to the next step, learning about their properties and results. Someday, another scientist may pick up his research and explore applications for his findings.

“You just don’t really know what someone could do with them,” Martin says. “I find it very interesting to find out how things work. They didn’t work how I thought they would. We’re learning about them as we go.”

While Martin is attracted to the abstract, the draw for Cheney is the visibility of physical changes in the experiments.

“I don't just mean color changes,” Cheney says. “When we make different compounds, I can actually see if we made a pure compound by viewing it using an X-ray diffractometer.

“This machine shows the crystal structure of any compound that I create, and that makes me able to see the chemistry happen literally on an atomic level — which is absolutely amazing to think about.”
 

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Arrow Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
   

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