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"Greener" Materials Science
Engineering natural polymers into biomaterials and water treatment technologies
Jessica Schiffman in her research laboratory

Schiffman and her team are engineering new materials for a wide range of biomedical and environmental uses including antibiofilm coatings, nanofiber scaffolds for wound healing, and membranes that can selectively remove contaminants.

In the exploding biomedical and environmental fields there is a growing need for innovative and “greener” materials that can heal wounds faster or remove toxic chemicals from drinking water. UMass Amherst materials scientist and chemical engineer Jessica Schiffman is blazing a trail to meet those needs by engineering new materials from greener polymers that are less stressful to the environment.

Schiffman (Chemical Engineering) is the first recipient of the Professor James M. Douglas Early Career Faculty Development Award, established “in honor of Professor Douglas’ research innovation, entrepreneurial spirit, and ability to tackle complex problems using innovative and non-traditional approaches to achieve results.” Douglas, a long-term faculty member and department head, cut a distinctive path through the process design community in chemical engineering. He pioneered a rational approach to design, embodied in a systematic design method that altered the well-established belief that no one could teach process design without years of experience.

Schiffman is carrying on this innovative tradition, utilizing the intrinsic properties of renewable biopolymers and bioactive products to synthesize novel nanostructures and new materials for biomedical and environmental applications. Polymers derived from natural sources have inherent qualities, which often make them superior to synthetic polymers. They are antibacterial, biodegradable, biocompatible, can chelate metal ions, and have coagulation capabilities. For example, Schiffman uses particular plant derivatives that exhibit a wide-spectrum antimicrobial activity. By analyzing the chemistry, processability, and biological functionality of these agents, Schiffman and her research team are engineering and characterizing new materials for a wide range of biomedical and environmental uses including antibiofilm coatings, nanofiber scaffolds for wound healing, and membranes that can selectively remove contaminants.

To improve the separation technology currently employed to purify drinking water, Schiffman recently received funding from the National Science Foundation to improve ultrafiltration membranes. In this project, Schiffman and her team will employ polycationic nanofibers mats to make the ultrafiltration membranes antifouling. This separation technology is vital for drinking water purification plants and a broad range of industries, including blood filtration/treatment, protein purification, and metal ion recovery.

With the Douglas Award, Schiffman and her team will continue their research into polymer hydrogels that can resist microbial contamination. Instead of relying on antimicrobials to kill the bacteria, Schiffman’s innovative approach optimizes the physical properties of polymer materials. Delaying the onset of biofilm formation is imperative due to the high mortality rate that microbes impose to both immune-compromised and critically-ill patients. Her research holds the potential to transform wound treatment in the medical field, exemplifying the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit of the Douglas Award.

College of Engineering