As the new associate chair for graduate studies in Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering (ChBE), Professor Martha Grover is focused on creating an even more inclusive community, exploring issues relevant to women, underrepresented minorities, and international students.
She now works with her predecessor as associate chair, Professor J. Carson Meredith, to co-lead the new GT-EQUAL (Graduate Training for Equality in Underrepresented Academic Leadership) Program. ChBE is one of two institutions selected nationwide to be inaugural sites for the American Chemical Society’s Bridge Program, which aims to increase the number of underrepresented minority students who receive doctoral degrees in chemical sciences.
The GT-EQUAL Bridge Site will enroll at least two Bridge Fellows annually who will receive extensive support, mentoring, and training to prepare for success in a PhD program.
“We are a leader in educating students from underrepresented groups,” Grover says. “But the numbers are too small, and we are committed to doing more. The infrastructure and financial support provided by ACS Bridge will catalyze this new program."
While more than a quarter of ChBE grad students are women, conversations Grover had in spring 2019 led her to understand that creating more opportunities for interaction (e.g. networking and social events) could help alleviate any isolation female students might feel after completing their initial core courses and concentrating their focus within their research labs. The same could hold true for international students, Grover adds.
When she joined the faculty of ChBE in 2002 after earning her PhD at California Institute of Technology, there was one other woman professor in the School. Now there are 11 women out of 39 core faculty members. “Reaching that number really changes the social dynamics for the better,” she says. “It’s very clear that we’re all very different people. None of us has to feel like we have to represent all women in everything we do.”
Former School Chair Ronald Rousseau recruited Grover, and she credits his leadership in strengthening ChBE’s ongoing commitment to recruiting more women faculty members.
Collaborative Research Projects
Professor Emeritus Rousseau remains a regular research collaborator with Grover. Working with Professor Andreas Bommarius, they have started a three-year federally-funded project to harness new manufacturing technologies and methods in an effort to improve the availability of certain antibiotics.
They won a $2 million award from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to find ways to apply continuous manufacturing methods to widely-used beta-lactam antibiotics. Instead of the traditional reliance on batch manufacturing for medicine production, Grover and her collaborators will develop a process to continuously synthesize, crystalize, and isolate the antibiotics cephalexin and amoxicillin, eliminating uncertainty and variation from batch to batch.
Controlling the crystallization process is one of Grover’s major research areas, and she has worked with Rousseau for a number of years to apply it to the treatment of nuclear waste stored at the decommissioned Hanford Site in the State of Washington.
They seek to improve nuclear waste separations with sensors to monitor the process of crystalizing non-nuclear salts so that they can be disposed of at lower-level safety sites. “There is 155 million gallons of liquid waste from the World War II and Cold War eras that poses serious environmental risks from leaking,” Grover explains.
Origins of Life
After she attained tenure, her research moved in an unexpected direction when Nicholas Hud, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Tech, contacted her to collaborate on a question fundamental to Earth: How did life begin here?
“At the time, I wasn’t very aware of ‘origins of life’ research, but it proved to be a natural fit,” Grover says. “Nick wanted to bring me on to help provide a mathematical approach to complement the experimental work his team was conducting.”
In 2010, the team won funding from the National Science Foundation and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to create the Center for Chemical Evolution at Georgia Tech. Five years later, the center received another $20 million grant to fund its work through 2020.
Through the center, a study co-authored by Grover found that the original recipe for gene soup may have been simple – rain and common molecules subjected to cycles of warm sunshine and nighttime cooling along with one key ingredient: a thickener that could have helped gene-liked strands to copy themselves in drying puddles for the first time billions of years ago.
Other researchers had performed related experiments in water without success, but Grover’s team overcame obstacles by adding an off-the-shelf viscous solvent (the thickener), according to results published in Nature Chemistry. Her research continues to explore how precursors to the present genetic code first duplicated themselves before the existence of enzymes that are now crucial to that process.
Grover is as committed to innovation in the classroom as she is the research lab. In 2018, she won the David Himmelblau Award for Innovations in Computer-Based Chemical Engineering Education from the American Institute for Chemical Engineers (AIChE) for developing multiple online screencasts to help her students understand concepts in her Process Controls course. “Students love videos, and they can watch them in preparing for the exam,” Grover says.
In 2017, she published a paper in the Journal of Chemical Education on the educational effectiveness of “Group Intelligence,” a collaboration with Out of Hand Theater that employed theatrical exercises and games to teach prebiotic chemistry concepts to high school students. In order to make abstract ideas in modern science accessible, Grover designed the series of increasingly complex interactive exercises to be analogous to molecular behaviors and interactions.
In her new role as associate chair of graduate studies, she plans to emphasize the importance of writing skills for graduate student success. “We’re making it clear how essential it is to be able to communicate effectively about research for it to become known. Whatever the next step is in their careers, being a strong writer is very important.”