NSF grant to support promising research, student opportunities

| Julie Poquette

A University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire faculty-student research project with important potential future applications in areas such as pharmaceuticals and water quality has received a three-year National Science Foundation grant totaling $217,330.

The project builds on seven years of faculty-student smart polymers research led by Dr. Elizabeth Glogowski, associate professor of materials science. It also continues Glogowski’s longstanding commitment to involving undergraduates in her research. Under the NSF grant, four students will have full-time paid positions working on the project during each of the next three summers.

The new research supported by the recent NSF grant “will build and expand upon all of my research to date at UW-Eau Claire,” Glogowski says. “Over the past seven years, my undergraduate researchers and I have synthesized and characterized stimuli-responsive polymers with different structures to understand how changing the structure will result in tuning of the stimuli-responsive properties.

“Understanding the fundamentals of how changing the structure controls properties allows us to explore new structures and new possible properties. This project will take our research in a new direction, investigating different properties in solution and in thin films as a function of different architectures.”

In addition to the student summer positions, the grant will fund a summer salary for Glogowski, lab supplies and chemicals, the costs of publishing the research results, and travel each year for Glogowski and a student to a regional or national conference where they will present their results.

Promising potential

Students doing polymers research

UW-Eau Claire students Ayla Hammill, left, and Tessa Plautz examine the properties of a polymer in water as part of their work with Dr. Liz Glogowski , associate professor of materials science, on her polymers research.

The title of the project — "Solution and Thin Film Properties of Dually Stimuli-Responsive Molecular Brush Block Copolymers" — may not be easily understood outside scientific circles. However, the possible future applications of the research are significant.

That’s exciting for student researcher Ayla Hammill, a senior from Madison majoring in chemistry with a business emphasis. Hammill, who will work on the research this summer, is inspired by the potential for the use of smart polymers in the targeted delivery of medications such as cancer-fighting drugs.

“As someone who has had several family members undergo chemo and radiation treatment, it would be incredibly rewarding and exciting to see this research go toward developing future ways to treat cancer patients,” Hammill says.

Glogowski explains how the nature of smart polymers makes possible such a future application of the research.

“In everyday life we think of polymers as plastics or elastomers,” Glogowski says. “In our studies, we’re looking at a specific subset of polymers that are stimuli responsive, or smart. They change properties dramatically when we make small changes in their environment — a change in temperature or pH, for example. They’ll go from water soluble to water insoluble, and it’s a reversible process we can control.”

Smart polymers could be used to encapsulate components like chemotherapy drugs at the molecular level, Glogowski says. Once administered to a patient, a change in the surrounding pH or temperature would trigger a change in the polymers and release the drug at the target location rather than affecting all cells (including healthy ones).

The research also could lead to future applications in water purification, Glogowski says, with polymer membranes allowing pure water through and keeping contaminants out.

Undergraduate opportunities

The opportunity to work with undergraduate researchers was a draw for Glogowski when she accepted a faculty position at UW-Eau Claire in 2011. Since then she’s mentored approximately 30 students in her lab.

“As we work together over a year, or longer, the students trust my advice and expertise, and I can watch them grow into scientists and engineers ready for the next step,” Glogowski says, noting that her previous students have gone on to graduate school or research-related careers in industry.

“It’s so important to me and it’s the best part of my job to be able to work with students and see them grow throughout the years, see them really find the joy in research and the joy in science,” Glogowski says.

Supporting women in STEM

The NSF award abstract notes that Glogowski’s newest project is expected to increase the retention of undergraduate women in materials science and engineering at UW-Eau Claire, and encourage more women to pursue advanced degrees and research careers in science and engineering.

According to the Society of Women Engineers, women obtain fewer than 20 percent of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in engineering and computer and information sciences.

“I know I have sometimes felt alone as a woman in chemistry and in polymer science throughout my education, and having good mentors helped me continue on my path and ultimately realize my potential,” Glogowski says. “I strive to be a good role model, a source of inspiration, and someone students can turn to when they are wondering what they are capable of. I can assure them that yes, they can do it, just like I did it.”

Hammill, who hopes to find a lab-based job in industry following graduation, says her work on research with Glogowski has given her opportunities for growth.

“There are so many ways in which working on Dr. G.'s research has helped me,” Hammill says. “Two of the biggest have been my growth in confidence and leadership skills. Last summer I was the lead trainer in helping two REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates program) students synthesize their first smart polymers. I have also seen a growth over last semester and this semester in my ability to guide and answer questions from other members of the research team.

“The lab, analytical and instrumentation skills that I have gained through undergraduate research will be a definite advantage when I begin job searching.”

Increasing the "pipeline" of women in engineering is a challenging, national issue that has been of importance to organizations like NSF, SWE and others to improve the gender balance, Glogowski says.

“Although improvements have been made, it requires a concerted, widespread and continued effort to improve the recruitment and retention of women in engineering,” she says. “Undergraduate research provides an engaging, high-impact experience that shows the students they are capable of doing the science and engineering, are capable of pursuing a graduate degree if they are interested, and are capable of becoming career scientists and engineers.”

Top photo caption: Dr. Liz Glogowski discusses use of the dynamic light scattering instrument in her lab with several of her student researchers, from left, Megan Hottmann, Tessa Plautz, Ayla Hammill and Kendra Berry. The instrument will be used extensively in a new polymers research project for which Glogowski has received a three-year National Science Foundation grant totaling $217,330.