NSF awards CAREER grant to UO researcher Michael Pluth

Michael Pluth
Michael Pluth

UO chemist Michael Pluth has won a National Science Foundation career grant to study hydrogen sulfide interactions in his lab and expand a science outreach effort with students from area middle and high schools.

CAREER Awards, as they are officially known, are the NSF's most-prestigious recognition of top-performing young scientists in the early stages of their faculty careers. Pluth, as of Feb. 1, will receive $650,000 over five years.

Under a now-expired early career award given to postdoctoral researchers by the National Institutes of Health, Pluth's team developed a sensitive probe to detect hydrogen sulfide, a colorless gas, in biological samples and contaminated water. The new NSF grant will allow Pluth to use synthetic chemistry and different forms of spectroscopy to study the interactions that occur when hydrogen sulfide first meets biological targets.

The research could have implications in clinical medicine because of hydrogen sulfide's little-understood role as a signaling molecule that affects blood pressure, heart health and inflammatory responses.

"We know that hydrogen sulfide is really important in biology. It does a lot of different things in disease and health and signaling, but we don't know how a lot of these things work at the biological or chemical level," said Pluth, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. "What we're trying to do is understand the basic chemistry of how hydrogen sulfide reacts with different enzymes that contain metals and with small organic molecules.

"There is a desire to harness hydrogen sulfide activity in pharmaceuticals," he said. "Eventually, this work may help us learn how to make effective sulfur-rich compounds, and to further explore the chemistry of other things that may happen downstream."

In the lab, Pluth's team will use simple, synthesized compounds that contain just key components of more complex structures of enzymes or other molecules to focus on the fundamental steps in the interactions.

Pluth laid the groundwork for the NSF grant with seed funding from the Oregon Medical Research Foundation. His preliminary findings resulted in two published papers in 2014, including one featured on the cover of the Aug. 4 edition of Inorganic Chemistry, a journal of the American Chemical Society. 

The educational outreach component of Pluth's grant will be used to expand a program initiated primarily with funding from the New York-based Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation to reach out to students interested in chemistry in Eugene-Springfield schools hit hard in the recession. Amid budget cuts, schools reduced course offerings and implemented furlough days.

Pluth and his chemistry colleagues Shannon Boettcher and George Nazin worked with the school districts and community sponsors, including the Eugene Water and Electric Board, Lane Transit District and TrackTown Pizza to establish on-campus lab activities for area middle and high school students to do on furlough days. The outreach program is detailed in a newly published paper made freely available online by the Journal of Chemical Education.

With an improving economy, the program has evolved into after-school or early release opportunities for students. With the new NSF grant, Pluth said, the program is expanding beyond chemistry, allowing UO graduate students from physics and computer science to develop lab modules for teaching middle and high school students.

—By Jim Barlow, Public Affairs Communications