Thomas Russell Named to Top Materials Research Post

AMHERST, Mass. - Professor Thomas Russell of the polymer science and engineering department at the University of Massachusetts has been named director of the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) at UMass. He succeeds David Tirrell. The announcement was made by Richard Farris, head of the polymer science and engineering department.

MRSEC, formerly the Materials Research Laboratory, was established at UMass in 1974. The program evolved into MRSEC in 1994, with a $7 million grant over five years from the National Science Foundation, to support basic research in polymer science and engineering. Polymers, which are long chains of molecules, play a significant role in industry, in fields ranging from oil recovery to health care. They are used in adhesives, textiles, electronic components, and biomedical and optic devices. MRSEC is the only center of this type in the nation dedicated to the study of polymers, and works hand-in-hand with a sister program, the Center for UMass and Industry Research on Polymers (CUMIRP). The two associations work to transfer technology "from the workbench to industry," said Russell.

One of the center’s advantages, Russell said, is that it enables researchers to use an interdisciplinary approach. "We have the ability to bring together people who can do very unique things; there’s a real synergy among different faculty members," said Russell, whose latest research requires collaboration with a physicist and a chemist.

The center’s research is currently organized into three groups. Controlled Interfacial Interactions involves creating materials with very specific qualities, such as water repellence or adhesion, on microscopic levels. Polymers in Supercritical Fluids is a group which explores the shaping of molecules using supercritical fluids, which have some liquid properties and some gaseous properties; and Polymers with Well-Defined Architectures looks at how to change the structure of molecules. The center also fosters "seed groups," providing support for emerging areas in polymer research. MRSEC supports the educational and research activities of nearly 60 students and postdoctoral fellows.

Educational outreach is a priority at MRSEC: "If the field is going to remain strong, we need to attract good students to science and engineering," Russell says, "particularly women and minority students."

Graduate students introduce local schoolchildren to polymer chemistry with engaging demonstrations - for example, freezing a rubber ball in liquid nitrogen. Another program provides research fellowships to students nationwide. A third program, Research Experience for Undergraduates, brings students into the lab, not just from UMass, but also from Mount Holyoke and Smith colleges, as well as Howard University, and the University of Puerto Rico.

Russell joined the University faculty in August 1996. Previous to his University appointment, he spent 15 years as a research scientist for IBM. He received his doctorate in polymer science from the University in 1979.