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'Forefront of innovation': 2 UC-Berkeley-led research teams to receive national grant

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The National Science Foundation is offering research grants to two research teams from UC Berkeley, as announced by U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla.

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SEPTEMBER 28, 2022

Two teams led by UC Berkeley researchers will be among the 14 California research projects to receive part of the more than $43 million in grants from the National Science Foundation, or NSF.

U.S. Sens. Alex Padilla and Dianne Feinstein announced the grants in a press release Friday. Seven universities, a nonprofit and a startup will receive funding, covering a wide range of scientific topics.

“These projects will help California remain at the forefront of innovation by furthering scientific advancements and providing more equitable access to fields of science for those who have historically been left out of them,” Padilla said in the press release.

Karthik Ram, a senior research data scientist at the Berkeley Institute for Data Science, is the principal investigator on one of the campus projects. His team is working to develop best practices for the open source products created by other researchers.

According to Ram, open source is a byproduct of research that often falls short of its potential. He noted that scientists are not trained to ensure the sustained usefulness of their open source products, which could benefit the scientific community as a whole if improved.

“We’re going to do some research on this and synthesize a lot of information about how to make your open source product more secure, have an open governance model, have a good license, basically make it useful to as many people as possible,” Ram said. “Once we’ve synthesized all of this information, we are going to build a training program that will benefit other people.”

Ram said failure to sustain research products has historically caused repeated investments in similar efforts, as older versions become too difficult to reuse. He deemed the NSF funding a “nice acknowledgement to this problem” and hopes to improve the scientific ecosystem by remedying the issue.

The second team, headed by campus bioengineering professor Seung-Wuk Lee, is developing a biological method of mining rare earth elements, or REE. According to Lee, REE — which can be found in smartphone screens and wind turbines, for example — is critical to modern society yet environmentally harmful to mine conventionally.

“We want to develop a new environmentally safe, economic and efficient process utilizing bacteria and bacteriophages as a tool for mining rare earth elements,” Lee said.

Lee explained that the team’s new biological method uses bacteria-produced acids to obtain REE. The REE is then processed using bacteriophages, which can recognize, bind to and purify them.

Norma Cecilia Martinez-Gomez, campus assistant professor in the department of plant and microbial biology and co-principal investigator for the project, noted that the specificity of these bacteria makes the biomining “extremely selective,” improving efficiency and allowing extraction of REE from low-grade ores.

“Part of this funding is going to allow us to discover much more of these different mechanisms,” Martinez-Gomez said. “It’s going to be pretty innovative; this field is just open.”

Contact Chanyoung Chung at 

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SEPTEMBER 28, 2022