In addition to the laboratories on campus, researchers in nuclear science have access to the Triangle Universities Nuclear Laboratory (TUNL), a specialized facility housed at Duke for nuclear physics experiments that is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). NCCU is a partner in the TUNL program, along with Duke, N.C. State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Labs at TUNL can be set up to reflect conditions in outer space for experiments involving nuclear activities, although “it’s extremely hard to recreate the astronomical environment in the lab,” Markoff concedes.
Funding for such cutting-edge investigation comes from a variety of sources, such as the Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Defense and others, including NASA, which previously provided a $1 million- per-year grant to create the Center for Aerospace Device Research and Education (CADRE) at NCCU.
Research funded by the grant, awarded in 2010 and now up for renewal, focuses on development of materials and products that are beneficial to the space program.
Both CADRE and the NSF Center of Research Excellence in Science and Technology (CREST) encourage interdisciplinary efforts that cross academic departments, including Mathematics and Physics; Chemistry; and Environmental, Earth and Geospatial Sciences.
Much of the research has focused on emerging fields, such as material science, nanotechnology, renewable energy, nuclear physics, robotics, geophysics and big data.
Examples include development of biosensors that take measurements in varying gravities led by chemistry professor Liju Yang, Ph.D., seismic research by faculty geophysicists Gordana Vlahovic, Ph.D., Rakesh Malhotra, Ph.D., and mobile robotics advances led by mathematics professor Alade Tokuta, Ph.D.
“We have developed several so far that have been very important,” said Branislav Vlahovic, who began working at NCCU in 1996 after spending six years at Duke. He has since established several new facilities for Eagle teaching and research, including labs for nanotechnology, material science, and semiconductor physics, and research programs in theoretical and computational nuclear physics.
Combining rigorous academics with opportunities for hands-on development in the research lab has been a boon for the physical sciences.
In his support letter for renewal of the NASA grant, Chancellor Johnson O. Akinleye pointed to recent improvements in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) scores. He also noted rising overall student achievement, more peer-reviewed faculty publications, and increased partnership activities with government and other academic institutions over the five-year grant period.
Maksym Eingorn, Ph.D, a research associate at CREST, studies gravitational interaction between distant galaxies to help understand more about the universe, such as dark matter and the Big Bang origin theory.
His findings could eventually help explain the existence of dark matter and dark energy, the mysterious substances that make up 94% of the universe.
“If we can learn their properties, then we can understand more about how they influence the world,” Eingorn said, referring to dark matter particles.
Also stemming from the NASA grant was a new tool to analyze high-energy gamma rays, the hottest and most energy-producing objects in the cosmos. That device is already in use at the DOE’s Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, called the Jefferson Lab, in Virginia, Branislav Vlahovic said, and - after needed modifications for space - will eventually be used by NASA in its latest observatory project known as the All-sky Medium Energy Gamma-ray Observatory, or AMEGO.