UMass Amherst Polymer Scientist Awarded NSF CAREER Grant

Katsumata grew up appreciating historic connection between UMass and Hokkaido U.
Reika Katsumata
Reika Katsumata

AMHERST, Mass. – Polymer scientist Reika Katsumata at the University of Massachusetts Amherst recently was chosen to receive a prestigious 2021 Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The five-year, $595,000 grant will support her investigations into fundamental problems bridging polymer science and engineering to better understand how different-sized molecules move in relationship to each other when they are heated.

As she explains, understanding such multi-scale polymer dynamics “is very important to how you form and shape polymers for use at room temperature. We are trying to understand what is going on at the molecular level. It’s a long-standing, sixty-year-old problem.”

Surprisingly, the molecular details are not known, Katsumata adds. “Every day I learn how little we know about materials and their relationships.” In particular, these dynamics are not straightforward for nanocomposites, she notes, and her lab will bring new knowledge at this level. Also, she has special expertise in fluorescence techniques that she will use in a series of experiments that for the first time combine two distinct methods to achieve new breakthroughs.

“Anyone trying to make polymers into shapes will be excited with our results,” she says. “They should be really useful in 3D printing techniques that use heat. The other area we hope to contribute to is applications that use polymers at a very small scale, called nano-imprinting. It’s a hot stamping method for stamping patterns on optoelectrical devices. When you’re making those it’s important to know the flow properties of the polymer.”

Katsumata says her research will focus on the relationships and flow between polymer chains and surrounding medium in a melted state and how to control this so that when the mixture cools and turns to a solid or glass state, it is evenly mixed and homogeneous. Both glass and melt properties are crucial to designing processing operations for making polymers for different applications.

Her lab’s experiments will involve mixing a large molecule with nanomolecules to create a nanocomposite. “If we can make a material with low viscosity, or flow, in the processing phase, but one that’s very rigid in the solid state, that will be easier to process,” but the task is very difficult, she points out. “Many people have tried. To do it, we have to find out what causes nanocomposites to have different flow properties from those of neat materials.”

Katsumata, who for this work developed combined fluoresence methods that no one had attempted before, is particularly interested in introducing the wider use of fluorescence techniques in polymer engineering. “The idea that NSF agrees that this is an exciting project worth spending money on makes me very happy,” she says.

To encourage creative thinking and the use of several powerful fluorescence methods into her field, Katsumata plans to design a new course as part of her NSF project. As she explains, “Right now the life sciences are much more advanced in using fluorescence techniques, and there is a huge gap that I want to bridge to materials science.”

She plans to introduce a new course in the next couple of years to teach students the range of fluorescence methods available. She will then ask them to develop tangible projects for use as outreach demonstrations for K-12 students, in particular in the College of Natural Science’s Eureka! program for middle and high school girls.

Katsumata came to UMass Amherst in 2018 with roots in her mother’s family home in Hokkaido, Japan. The researcher grew up very much aware of the connection between the UMass Amherst campus and Hokkaido University. It dates back to William Smith Clark, third president of Massachusetts Agricultural College, who helped to found Sapporo Agricultural College, now Hokkaido University. The campuses now have extensive undergraduate student and faculty exchange, among other exchange programs.

Katsumata says, “I feel right at home in the Pioneer Valley because at home on Hokkaido there is a similar pioneer spirit, where the people developed beautiful valleys with agriculture similar to here.”