The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Assistant Professor of Inorganic Chemistry Chantal Stieber and her research team the Faculty Early Career Development Program grant of $475,000 on April 3, to study how metals interact with pollutants.

According to Stieber, the $475,000 grant will be divided into equal parts over the span of five years and the disbursement begins in September.

Stieber said she is proud of the accomplishment and said because the award is a “high-profile grant,” it establishes her research team’s credibility in the community.

Assistant Professor Chantal Stieber (left) and her research team are currently working on removing greenhouse gases from the air by determining the structure of metals. (Courtesy of Chantal Stieber)

She began her research when she first entered Cal Poly Pomona as an assistant professor in 2015, and her team’s work is unconventional for most undergrad schools.

“To help students understand what they [metals] look like, we bring X-ray techniques to school and that’s unusual for undergrad schools to have those resources,” Stieber said.

Stieber recognized a need for the grant in order to get more students interested in research, and she said she believes it opens research and financial opportunities to underrepresented students.

“If they are trying to increase access to underrepresented groups, one way to do that is to offer competitive pay rather than students getting jobs outside of their majors,” Stieber said.  

Students will be paid anywhere from $14.25 to $18 hourly to participate in the research, according to Stieber.

Before this grant, Stieber had limited funds from other grants to pay students for participating in research and those who were not paid received course credit. 

First-year graduate student and chemistry major Jacob Brannon is part of Stieber’s research team and said he doesn’t have to scramble to find a job over the summer.

“Students that need assistance can be paid for their time,” Brannon said. “It is useful for the summer because I don’t have classes but I still need a job and can work on research.” 

In addition to creating an incentive for students to participate in research, the grant will allow Stieber and her team to purchase the tools they need. 

Stieber and her research team’s work focuses on removing pollutants, such as greenhouse gases, from the air by determining the structure of metals. 

 The research conducted by her team is expensive and meticulous work, said third-year biochemistry student Zijie Zhang, a member of Stieber’s research team.

“A lot of instruments are very expensive and all of our products are very sensitive.” Zhang said.  “It’s better to have it in our lab instead of another because there’s a chance that the product will die mid-research.” 

For Zhang, the research process can be difficult, as the desired result may not be attained after countless attempts, but she said she is excited as she thinks of the positive things that research can accomplish.

“I know that I’m doing something awesome to help out the environment,” Zhang said, referring to removing pollutants from the air. 

While today she can confidently say she loves research, two years ago Zhang said she didn’t know what career direction she would take until Stieber offered Zhang the opportunity to work on research. 

Zhang felt overwhelmed by the thought of conducting research so early on.

“I didn’t know anything about college and I didn’t know if I could do well,” Zhang said. “I was very panicked.”

After working one-on-one with Steiber and shadowing experienced students conducting research, Zhang eventually grew the confidence to begin research and now her research has been published.

Instead of asking students to join research teams as third or fourth years, Stieber said she likes recruiting students as freshmen so that they can participate all four years.

Stieber likes to make sure students leave CPP having years of research experience so they are prepared for the professional world.

Zhang said she has definitely benefited from this, as she will intern in a highly competitive pharmaceutical research program for the Keck Graduate Institute this summer.

While she explores various types of research, Zhang has learned from Stieber that researchers will always have a new topic to explore. 

“With research there’s no ending,” Zhang said. “You can always move on and there’s always a next step.” 

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