Elmhurst College: Elmhurst Professor Awarded National Science Foundation Grant

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Elmhurst Professor Awarded National Science Foundation Grant

The National Science Foundation has awarded a grant of more than $120,000 to Elmhurst College Assistant Professor of Physics Venkatesh Gopal, who will use the funding to support the students whose work is critical to his research.

Gopal’s research involves developing ways to better understand how animals track airborne odor plumes. Since joining the Elmhurst faculty in 2008, he has employed the talent and ingenuity of his top students, giving the undergraduates a rare and invaluable opportunity to do work usually reserved for graduate students. The National Science Foundation grant, of $123,349 over three years, enables Gopal to pay his three-student team so that they can focus on their lab work without having to take on outside jobs. It also will allow them to participate in academic conferences, where they can learn about current research in their field and present their own findings.

“Dr. Gopal has integrally involved students in his research from the moment of his arrival at Elmhurst College,” said Alzada Tipton, senior vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty. “I firmly believe that the National Science Foundation approved this grant at least partially because of the effectiveness with which Dr. Gopal is training the next generation of imaginative and intelligent scientists.”

The grant project, a collaboration with Professor Mitra J. Hartmann and Professor Neelesh Patankar of Northwestern University, studies how rats use their whiskers to detect and follow air currents, offering a window into the evolution and workings of the brain. Gopal and his students are developing instrumentation that visualizes the air currents and measures the minute motions of a whisker as it interacts with the air current.

Using tiny, soap-filled helium bubbles that ride the air currents, the researchers illuminate the bubbles with a laser, photograph them and then track their movements using computer software developed by Michael Meaden, one of Gopal’s students, now a graduate student in applied mathematics at the University of Arizona.

In his nearly five years on the Elmhurst faculty, Gopal has been committed to introducing undergraduates to research. While he develops and directs the projects and writes up the results, it’s the students who carry out the experiments, he said. 

“The more they can do, the more I can do,” he said. “The students are the centerpiece of the project. Undergraduate students at large research universities rarely get to actually run projects the way they do here.”

His approach exemplifies the kind of collaborative faculty-student relationships Elmhurst College is known for and seeks to encourage, Tipton said.

“Receiving an NSF grant is an extraordinarily competitive process and a great honor, and it is nice to think that the core of the identity of the College—our focus on students—helped him, and Elmhurst College, receive this distinction.”

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