Trio wins American Chemical Society polymer education award


Two years after courses in polymer chemistry began to be offered at Virginia Tech, Paul J. Flory received the 1974 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his achievement in the physical chemistry of macromolecules. This year, the award given in his name to recognize outstanding achievements in polymer education is being presented to the pioneers of Virginia Tech's polymer education program.

Virginia Tech chemistry professors Tom Ward and James McGrath and chemical engineering professor emeritus Garth Wilkes, all of Blacksburg, have been awarded the Paul J. Flory Polymer Education Award by the American Chemical Society Division of Polymer Chemistry.

Ordinarily presented to an individual, the 2004 award recognizes the Virginia Tech team for long-term efforts in undergraduate, graduate, and continuing education in polymer science and engineering, says Lloyd Robeson, a principal research associate for Air Products and Chemicals Inc. in Allentown, Pa., who nominated the trio. Since the 1970s, Ward, McGrath, and Wilkes have pulled together a team of faculty members from chemistry and engineering to teach hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students and provided short courses on polymer chemistry to thousands of industry and government scientists.

In 1972, Ward introduced a senior course on polymer and surface chemistry and a graduate course on the physical chemistry of polymers, which used Flory's textbook. "By 1974, Professor Ward was named an Outstanding Educator for America," says McGrath, who nominated Ward for the Flory prize at the same time Robeson nominated all three faculty members.

A national surge in interest in polymers encouraged the Virginia Tech chemistry department to expand faculty in this area. McGrath joined the chemistry department and, in 1978, persuaded Wilkes to leave Princeton University and join the Virginia Tech chemical engineering department with the promise of an interdisciplinary program. They founded and still co-direct the Polymer Materials and Interfaces Laboratory (PMIL).

"We began with 10 faculty members from forest products, engineering science and mechanics, chemical engineering, chemistry, mechanical engineering, and material science," recalls Wilkes. "We now have 23 faculty members with one of our most recent additions being from physics.

"One of the early interests of several faculty members was adhesion, which is why "interfaces" is in the title of our PMIL program. But we investigate polymers in general synthesis, characterization, and processing. It was one of the first major interdisciplinary efforts at Virginia Tech, and it took off," says Wilkes. "We developed an industrial affiliates program and hold a research review every 18 months. The reviews are more focused on the polymer research than education, but it brought us to fifth in the country in the U.S. News ranking of graduate education in polymers."

While a Ph.D. program in materials science and engineering was created, most students outside of engineering remained in their majors but took courses in other disciplines and had interdisciplinary Ph.D. committees.

Wolfgang Glasser, professor emeritus of wood science and an original PMIL faculty member, says, "The concept of polymers was introduced into wood chemistry by the efforts of Drs. (Jim) Wightman, McGrath, Wilkes and Ward. It helped us to become pioneers in understanding the makeup of natural materials from a polymer perspective and to create new materials.

"We all work in our respective niches and become experts, but it is the diffusion of knowledge to peripheral fields that triggers developments," Glasser says.

Of his 47 students and post docs, "The ones who have taken Ward's, Wilkes', McGrath's, and Wightman's courses have carried the banner of polymer chemistry into their industries and professional societies," Glasser says. "Their careers are defined by combining wood with polymer chemistry."

Eugene Joseph, division scientist at 3M, is a chemical engineering graduate who benefited from the polymers program. He received his doctoral degree from Virginia Tech in 1983 with Wilkes as his thesis adviser. "My focus was structure-property interrelationships in polymers. PMIL offered both a strong theoretical and a hands-on approach. Students received training in synthesis, structural properties, and processing of polymers - a complete education in polymer science," says Joseph. "As a graduate of such a program, I found I could work effectively with the synthetic chemist on the development of new materials in the laboratory, and, because I understand both properties and processes, I can interact effectively with the people responsible for scale up of processes from the laboratory to the manufacture of new materials and products. Understanding this transition from bench to factory is somewhat unique," says Joseph, who knows because he now recruits students who will be researchers at 3M.

In 2001, a multi-college Macromolecular Science and Engineering (MACR) M.S. and Ph.D. degree program at Virginia Tech received state approval, and the polymers group, led by chemistry professor Judy Riffle, was awarded a $2.7-million National Science Foundation (NSF) Integrated Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) grant in macromolecular science and infrastructure engineering, which helps support many MACR students. There are now 30 MACR students. Over 50 others continue to major in a single discipline, but focus their courses and research in polymers.

"The MACR program has become a huge success in a time of very little funding," says McGrath. "Dr. Riffle (who directs the MACR program) has been able to generate industry support for first year students on the order of $100,000."

In addition to programs for undergraduate and graduate students, Ward and McGrath co-founded the American Chemical Society polymer chemistry short courses in 1976. In order to offer lab instruction, most of the courses are now offered at Virginia Tech during the summer.

"We thought it would be useful for our students to learn from and to interact with industry," says McGrath. "The courses provide a detailed introduction to polymer science split between experiments and lectures. Our graduate students do some of the lectures and oversee many of the experiments. It gives them an appreciation for what they actually know and can contribute to industry and government labs."

The polymer group is giving five different short courses this year. Some years it's as many as seven. Those who attend a short course receive a semester-long course's instruction in a week. "It's an intense week. The people in the short courses have been known to keep us until 11 p.m. answering questions," says McGrath. "The feedback also helps us keep our material for undergraduate and graduate classes up to date."

The courses also are offered as TV courses for the continuing education program and at industry sites worldwide, although without the experiment part of the program. "We estimate we've taught 10,000 people," says McGrath. "If someone says hello to one of us at a meeting, there's a high probability they were here for a course five or 10 or 20 years ago."

In 1989, Ward initiated a summer undergraduate research program, offering students from many universities opportunities to be faculty members' research partners for three months.

"I wanted it to be different from programs where students were mostly on their own," Ward says. "I wanted a science camp with common housing, social events, and a lot of camaraderie so they would bond and do a better job. They would do their own research, then each one would write a paper and give a talk. That meant faculty had to carefully think through projects for the students in advance.

"We had good reviews from the start, and after three years, the students were coming from the same schools, thanks to word-of-mouth. We've always had a diverse representation of undergraduates; participation from North Carolina State University, University of North Carolina, MIT, Cal Tech, New Mexico, Texas, and Clark Atlanta University would be typical. We started with seven the first year and have now "graduated" 355 young scientists and engineers. We've been careful from the beginning to have a balance in terms of gender and ethnic groups represented."

He says, "The most rewarding thing for me is the tremendous growth in the scientific philosophy of these undergraduates that I see in just 12 weeks. By the end of that period, they recognize the importance of communication, questioning of results, and reproducibility of data.

"I have stayed in touch with a lot of the graduates. One student I directed, from Clark Atlanta University, just wrote me that she is finishing her Ph.D. at MIT this year. This certainly inspires you as teacher," Ward says. More than 90 percent of these participants go to graduate school. "They are the best and the brightest."

McGrath praised Ward's ability to keep the program funded. "Initially, the principal funding was from the NSF Center for High Performance Adhesives and Composites at Virginia Tech," Ward says. "After that program concluded, we received grants from the NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates and the IGERT programs and from the Center for Adhesive and Sealant Science at Virginia Tech."

Early projects addressed composites and adhesives, he says. "Now we find interest in fuel cells and interfacial phenomena, as well as other interdisciplinary fundamental topics."

In addition to the polymer program, Ward is affiliated with the Virginia Tech Center for Adhesive and Sealant Sciences, and the Center for Composite Materials and Structures and is a Commonwealth Endowed Professor. McGrath is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a University Distinguished Professor, and the Ethyl Corp. Chair in Chemistry. Wilkes is a University Distinguished Professor emeritus of chemical engineering.

"The team was 25 years in front of everyone in terms of education at the interface of polymer science and engineering," says Virginia Tech chemistry professor Tim Long, who graduated from the polymers program and worked in industry before joining the university's faculty. "As one of their students, I benefited. They set the standard for how we need to educate our students in the future. They were successful in class and in the lab because they recognized that integrating science and engineering is where discoveries happen."

The Flory award is presented biennially in even-numbered years. It will be awarded at the 227th annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in Anaheim, Calif., March 28 to April 2, 2004. The DuPont Company sponsors the award. Roberson, Ward, McGrath, and Wilkes are organizing the awards symposium, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday, March 29, in the Anaheim Coast Hotel room Park D. The symposium will focus on polymer research and education.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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