Research Opportunities

All Polymer Science and Engineering majors are required to complete a research project for a minimum of 3 credit hours. Such projects are usually more extensive, however, and up to 9 credit hours can be counted toward the B.S. degree. Many students, often as early as the sophomore year, participate in research with their faculty advisors' graduate study groups. These undergraduates work closely with a graduate student and frequently continue the research efforts for their senior theses. The following are examples of recent research projects:

For his senior thesis project, Chris Snively '95, proposed that a surfactant could be added to polymer dispersed liquid crystal (PDLC) displays to act as a stabilizer similar to the way that surfactants are used for a variety of emulsion stabilizing applications. As a result of his research, more uniform and better stabilized PDLCs were developed which had exceptionally long lifetimes and switched up to 100,000 times without any perceivable structural changes. Time-resolved infrared measurements showed that the stabilized systems had faster switching on and off times. His work has been submitted for publication. Because of his success, he won the POLYED undergraduate research award, a national prize administered by the American Chemical Society.

During a summer research project, David Muzic '97 demonstrated that more highly ordered liquid crystal solvents offer the possibility of creating polymer networks with much greater orientation. These lead to significant changes in optical behavior, and advantages for device characteristics are expected. His research will soon appear in Polymers for Advanced Technology, an international scientific journal. Moreover, David participated in the Waldo Semon National Undergraduate Research Award Symposium and received a prize for his excellent research. The influence of these networks on device switching characteristics has also been studied by Jessica Hoch '96 and Paul Dean '98.

Polyurethane elastomers have proven useful as implanted medical devices such as artificial heart valves. However, polyurethanes are susceptible to oxidative biodegradation when implanted, resulting in surface pitting and cracking. Although much research has been devoted to understanding the biodegradation of these elastomers under static strain, very little research has focused on the behavior of these materials under dynamic strain, as in a beating heart. As part of Michael Wiggins' '96 senior project, he developed a method for easily testing polyurethane films under dynamic biaxial strain. He plans to continue his investigation as part of his Master's thesis.

Nadim Qureshi '97 during his undergraduate research studied the structure-property relationship in a new set of polyethylenes with a broad range of short-chain branching and narrow molecular weight distributions synthesized by metallocene catalysts. Deformation in uniaxial tension revealed elastomeric response at high branch contents while at low branch contents, it was similar to the semicrystalline thermoplastics. The elastomeric response of highly branched polyethylenes was studied in more detail in light of the structural characteristics of low crystallinity copolymers which entail bundle-like crystalline morphology. Analysis using rubber theory yielded results in agreement with the observed structural and morphological characteristics.

Opportunities exist for research in other departments also, so that students can receive multiple perspectives. Kim Pham '98 spent the summer at Virginia Tech Materials Science & Eng. Dept. She learned that research can be both painstaking and enjoyable while working on fabrication and mechanical testing of a new water-based formulation for epoxy resins, proposed as a replacement for less environmentally friendly cfc-based resins. Brian Burkhart '98 carried out new polymerization reactions at the Univ. Southern Mississippi. Control of molecular weight is essential for all applications for polymers; Brian's work aimed to develop new thickeners for paints.

Undergraduate research always represents real problems, and their work is often closely coupled with the research efforts of graduate students. John Boyle '98, tested and confirmed a model, developed by Prof. Hudson and C. Rajaram, that predicts structure of polymer networks. These networks are an important component of new generation liquid crystal displays, and their structure strongly influences display properties.