University fund pushes VCU faculty members ahead on research quests

2015 Presidential Research Quest Fund awards announced

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When it comes to research, even the smallest amount of funding can lead to big breakthroughs.

Just ask Terry Oggel, Ph.D., a Virginia Commonwealth University English professor who recently learned that he was the recipient of the smallest award made from this year’s VCU Presidential Research Quest Fund, or PeRQ Fund.

The $3,141 Oggel will receive from the PeRQ Fund may not sound like much, but the money will help the professor bring to light writings by Mark Twain that nobody knew existed.

“I don’t need any equipment and there are no residual expenses with what I’m doing,” said Oggel, who also will receive $2,600 from the College of Humanities and Sciences’ Humanities Research Center. “It’s just me going to the archives.”

Formerly the Presidential Research Incentive Program, the PeRQ Fund has been supporting faculty in new, emerging or continuing research for six years. Officials recently announced this year’s internal funding awards, which total nearly $1 million when combined with matching funds from faculty members’ schools and departments.

This year’s 22 awards will help 27 faculty members carry out projects across the institution — the schools of Medicine, Allied Health, Arts, Education, Engineering, Social Work, Business, Government and Public Affairs, Pharmacy, Dentistry and Nursing, and the College of Humanities and Sciences.

The entire list of awards can be found at VCU Presidential Research Quest Fund.

We are a premier urban public research university because our faculty members are committed to making meaningful and lasting impacts on the national and international stage

“We are a premier urban public research university because our faculty members are committed to making meaningful and lasting impacts on the national and international stage,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. “Every bit of support makes a difference on the road to discovery, and PeRQ Funds provide critical seed funding to faculty members pursuing breakthroughs in every discipline, from medicine and science to literature and the arts.”

The PeRQ Fund underscores three key aspects of VCU’s Quest for Distinction strategic plan: increasing and diversifying university-sponsored research; increasing productivity in high impact and translational research; and increasing interdisciplinary research.

No Paine, no (posthumous) Twain

Somewhere in a library in San Marino, California, there are 24 boxes of letters and manuscripts once belonging to Albert Bigelow Paine, the former biographer and literary executor for Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain.

Oggel’s PeRQ award will allow the professor to spend a month digging through these boxes at the Huntington Library and additional papers housed at the University of California-Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, home to the Mark Twain Project.

Oggel’s project is called, “Mark Twain: The Public Writings Samuel Clemens Really Wrote,” and it is a journey to understand the nuances distinguishing original manuscripts written by Clemens and the posthumously published pieces credited to Twain.

After Clemens’ death in 1910, Paine edited and published volume after volume of new Twain writings — letters, speeches, notebooks, a final novel and more. Paine often toned down the original manuscripts for public consumption.

“I’ll be looking for textual stuff, specifically whether or not Paine made any statements about his principles in editing Mark Twain,” Oggel said.

Oggel’s research centers on the 35 essays and sketches collected in 1923’s “Europe and Elsewhere.”

The professor is the only person to examine the collection as written by Clemens before being edited and published by Paine.

In a piece called “The United States of Lyncherdom” that Clemens wrote in 1901, Paine deleted about 400 words, including Clemens’ description of lynch mobs as “nothing more than white assassins.”

Another 1901 piece criticizing American Christian missionary efforts in China was published as “To the Person Sitting in Darkness.” Clemens had titled it “Shall We?” It is a phrase repeated throughout the essay and one that questioned American readers’ tolerance of what Clemens thought was ruthless behavior on the part of the missionaries.

Oggel’s ultimate goal is to produce a critical edition of “Europe and Elsewhere” with Clemens’ original manuscripts. In doing so, he also intends to give Paine his due in getting the pieces before the public in the first place, albeit in altered versions.

“The influence of Paine on Mark Twain’s reputation in our time is impossible to calculate,” Oggel said. “All of these things we’ve been reading for more than a hundred years are there because of Paine, even if they’re not exactly what Clemens wrote.”

Smart fabrics for war

One of the largest PeRQ awards this year will go to a new VCU faculty member looking to make uniforms that will protect soldiers against chemical weapons such as sarin or VX gas.

Christina Tang, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering, will use $30,000 from the PeRQ fund (and $20,000 from the School of Engineering) for her project, “Next-generation Smart Fabric for Detection and Detoxification of Chemical Warfare.”

Tang wants to create a fabric that will detect the presence of a nerve agent and then degrade it.

Christina Tang, Ph.D., will use PeRQ funds to create fabric for uniforms that will protect soldiers from chemical attacks.
Christina Tang, Ph.D., will use PeRQ funds to create fabric for uniforms that will protect soldiers from chemical attacks.

“Soldiers need a warning that something harmful is present so they can get out of an area,” Tang said. “We’re trying to find something that is lightweight, hands-free and doesn’t increase their logistical burden. It could just be a patch on a uniform.”

In the lab, Tang uses an electric field to spin tiny fibers from liquid. These electrospun fibers are made of nylon and polyvinyl alcohol, which is closely related to a key ingredient in Elmer’s glue.

The final product is called D²-Tex, a smart fabric that degrades nerve agents into less toxic compounds and an acidic byproduct. The acid decreases the pH level and causes the polymers in the fabric to change color.

The goal is to incorporate the new fabric into existing uniforms. When soldiers see the patch on their uniform change colors, they will know to move to another area.

Eventually, Tang could use her findings to demonstrate the design to labs like the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Systems Center in Massachusetts. The center uses the latest science and technology to equip soldiers with innovative gear.

“Hopefully we see enough results from this opportunity with the Quest Fund that we can go to places like Natick and say, ‘This is what we can do,’” Tang said.

PeRQ dollars cover 60 percent of the awards and the faculty members’ departments and schools provide 40 percent. The university supported this round of PeRQ research with nearly $575,120 of funding, and the faculty members’ units provided more than $400,595.

The funding period for PeRQ is 18 months beginning July 1.


Feature image at top: The Presidential Research Quest Fund will allow Terry Oggel, Ph.D., to conduct research on never-before-seen versions of writings by Mark Twain.


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