Over the past year, I’ve visited an awe-inspiring range of projects and programs that have received stimulus awards and heard about the direct impact these awards will have on the people of the Commonwealth.
From infrastructure projects to social service agencies to private businesses , the impact is clear. Whether it’s a construction crew that is hiring more workers for a sewer project that will improve water quality in a town or a career center that can better help its clients find jobs or an innovative start up company that can take a chance on an exciting idea, the line from stimulus award to the project to the people is obvious.
I mention this because recently I had the opportunity to visit researchers at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and while I recognize that the impact of much of what they are doing cannot be felt immediately, I was blown away by the impact their stimulus awards will have on the future of this country in terms of energy, fighting disease and the environment.
I was struck by this when I spoke to Paul Lahti, a professor of Chemistry at UMass Amherst and Tom Russell, a professor of Polymer Science and Engineering. The men, both passionate about their science, were awarded a $16 million stimulus grant to pursue their research on developing advanced solar cell technology. The impact this research could have on energy resources in this country is incalculable (at least not by me). As Professor Russell told me, “Energy is an area that is incredibly important to mankind and we can make an impact there.” The stimulus award, he added, is providing the mechanism to do that.
I also had the opportunity to meet Jenny Ross, an assistant professor of Physics at the university. Professor Ross’s lab received a $684K stimulus grant to develop a new super resolution microscope that can see molecules 100 times smaller than traditional microscopes. The implications of this machine, which Professor Ross and a graduate student built themselves, are astounding and range from approaches to cancer treatments to the study of the brain to green energy. “This gives us the ability to see things in a live cell,” Professor Ross told me and when she showed me what that looks like, I was amazed. Professor Ross, who sports sequined Keds and looks much younger than her 31 years, emphasized that she purposely designed this microscope to be user-friendly so cell biologists – who were clamoring for this kind of microscope – could easily use it.
Lila Geirasch, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at UMass, received a $2.5 million stimulus award to pursue her research on proteins and its implications for diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. “I wanted to do this all along,” she told me. “Now ARRA has allowed me to.” She is developing a model for what goes wrong in proteins and she summed up the impact of her research very succinctly: “We want to keep you from getting Alzheimer’s.”
George Huber, a professor of chemical engineering, received $4.1 million in stimulus awards, to pursue his research on developing cheap biofuels production processes to replacing petroleum-based products. “We are taking renewable resources and making renewable fuels,” he told me.
Obviously, a worthwhile goal that will ultimately benefit everyone in this country – if not the world. But that goal starts in the university labs and it is stimulus awards that ensured that we don’t lose sight of that.
Professor Geirasch said it best when she told me, “With ARRA we had the opportunity to do something more and stimulate freer thought.”
That’s where it all begins.