UMass Amherst Researchers Receive Four-Year Grant of Nearly $6 Million for Study of Polymers

AMHERST, Mass. - A major research center at the University of Massachusetts has won a four-year, $5.98 million grant from the National Science Foundation. It will support the research of 24 scientists and 23 graduate students.

The grant was awarded to the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) at UMass, which conducts research that impacts fields ranging from nanoscopic devices to commodity plastics. The UMass MRSEC is the only center of this type in the nation dedicated solely to the study of the entire polymer field. The University was one of 12 institutions chosen from a field of 130 invited contenders, according to Thomas P. Russell, MRSEC director.

"This grant represents a statement by the scientific community that the polymer program at UMass retains its eminence in both research and education," said Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Provost Cora B. Marrett. "It signals, too, the quality and importance of interdisciplinary work at this University. We are very pleased and very proud."

The center began as the Materials Research Laboratory in 1974, and evolved into MRSEC in 1994. It is located in the Silvio O. Conte National Center for Polymer Research. Scientists from departments such as polymer science and engineering, chemistry, physics, and chemical engineering are among those doing research at the center, Russell said.

Linda Slakey, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, pointed out the competitive nature of the grant, as well as the center''s longevity. "This grant is awarded in a very competitive funding program," she said. "UMass has been consistently funded for nearly 25 years. Our current MRSEC leadership and staff continue to work at the standard of excellence established by the extraordinarily talented people who launched the UMass polymer program."

Russell said: "Polymers are long chains of interconnected molecules that play a very significant role in our everyday life, in areas ranging from oil recovery to health care. They are used in adhesives, textiles, electronic components, and biomedical and optic devices."

The center''s research concentrates on three major areas. One focuses on processing polymers using highly compressed carbon dioxide gas, rather than environmentally hazardous solvents. Another produces materials with very specific surface qualities, such as adhesion or water repellence. The third researches how to change the architecture of molecules, thereby dramatically changing a substance from, for instance, a thermoplastic such as polyethylene to an elastomer such as Spandex. The center also fosters "seed projects," providing support for emerging areas in polymer research.

Education is an integral part of MRSEC, Russell said, both on and off campus. The UMass center has established outreach programs with Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, the University of Puerto Rico, and Howard University. These agreements enable researchers from those schools to participate in research through efforts at their home institutions as well as by conducting scientific experiments in UMass polymer science labs. Other outreach efforts bring undergraduates and high school students into the lab. UMass graduate students also visit grade schools and high schools to conduct workshops introducing K-12 students to polymers.