Northland College has received its first National Science Foundation award for research purposes. The $364,361 award will, in part, support Associate Professor of Chemistry Nick Robertson’s student-intensive research on the synthesis and chemical recycling of plastics.

“The grant allows us to significantly build on what we’ve started—to provide students with state-of-the-art research experiences that could lead to important advances that would have a significant impact on lessening the environmental impact of plastics,” Robertson said.

Robertson and students coauthored initial research results with their collaborators at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 2014, in the journal ChemComm, about new methods of transforming waste plastics into useful chemicals.

The NSF grant is a collaborative effort with UW-Eau Claire where Robertson earned his undergraduate degree under his mentor, Dr. Michael Carney, professor of Chemistry, who will be heading up the UW-Eau Claire contributions focused on catalyst development.

The two will oversee their undergraduate research teams over a three-year period, with roughly two-thirds of the grant supporting work at Northland College and one-third supporting work at UW-Eau Claire.

The project employs four to six Northland students part-time throughout the school year and four students working full time through the summer.

“The project itself is awesome because we’re looking into developing new biodegradable plastics which could help solve a global crisis,” said junior John Aguirre, who is part of the research team. “I’m learning how to use technology that is used in graduate school and beyond, the ability to communicate new ideas with my fellow assistants and Nick, and getting crucial lab experience.”

Aguirre says he plans to keep learning new chemical techniques and hopes to coauthor a publication before he graduates next year.

Robertson said student education is the primary purpose of the research—to provide in-depth experience in lab techniques and research—with the possibility of making change in the world of sustainable plastics.

Lisa Williamson, director of sponsored programs, underscored the significance of receiving such a prestigious grant. “The odds of obtaining an NSF award are about one in four, with greater challenges for newer investigators, new institutions, and first submissions.”

Robertson has been working towards obtaining NSF support since arriving in 2009. Northland has been building its capacity under Williamson’s leadership to obtain and house such awards since 2011.

“Working on Professor Robertson’s research team is both challenging and a privilege,” said sophomore Chris Langstad. “I get to work with smart and dedicated people and at the same time advance my knowledge of chemistry while going through the necessary steps of research.”

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