A UW-Eau Claire faculty-student research project with important potential future applications in areas such as pharmaceuticals and water quality has received a three-year National Science Foundation grant totaling $217,330.
The project builds on seven years of faculty-student smart polymers research led by Elizabeth Glogowski, a UW-Eau Claire associate professor of materials science. It also continues Glogowski’s longstanding commitment to involving undergraduates in her research.
As part of the NSF grant, four students will have full-time paid positions working on the project during each of the next three summers.
The new research supported by the recent NSF grant “will build and expand upon all of my research to date at UW-Eau Claire,” Glogowski said. “... This project will take our research in a new direction.”
In addition to student summer positions, the grant will fund a summer salary for Glogowski, lab supplies and chemicals, the costs of publishing research results and travel each year for Glogowski and a student to a regional or national conference where they will present their results.
The title of the project — “Solution and Thin Film Properties of Dually Stimuli-Responsive Molecular Brush Block Copolymers” — may not be easily understood outside scientific circles. However, the possible future applications of the research are significant.
That’s exciting for student researcher Ayla Hammill, a senior from Madison majoring in chemistry with a business emphasis. Hammill, who will work on the research this summer, is inspired by the potential for the use of smart polymers in the targeted delivery of medications such as cancer-fighting drugs.
“As someone who has had several family members undergo chemo and radiation treatment, it would be incredibly rewarding and exciting to see this research go toward developing future ways to treat cancer patients,” Hammill said.
Glogowski explained how the nature of smart polymers makes possible such a future application of the research.
“In everyday life we think of polymers as plastics or elastomers,” Glogowski said. “In our studies, we’re looking at a specific subset of polymers that are stimuli responsive, or smart.”
Smart polymers could be used to encapsulate components such as chemotherapy drugs at the molecular level, Glogowski said. Once administered to a patient, a change in the surrounding pH or temperature would trigger a change in the polymers and release the drug at the target location rather than affecting all cells, including healthy ones.
The research also could lead to future applications in water purification, Glogowski said, with polymer membranes allowing pure water through and keeping contaminants out.
The opportunity to work with undergraduate researchers was a draw for Glogowski when she accepted a faculty position at UW-Eau Claire in 2011, she said.
Since then she has mentored approximately 30 students in her lab.
“As we work together over a year or longer, the students trust my advice and expertise, and I can watch them grow into scientists and engineers ready for the next step,” Glogowski said. “It’s so important to me and it’s the best part of my job to be able to work with students and see them grow throughout the years, see them really find the joy in research and the joy in science.”
The NSF award abstract notes Glogowski’s newest project is expected to increase the retention of undergraduate women in materials science and engineering at UW-Eau Claire and encourage more women to pursue advanced degrees and research careers in science and engineering.
According to the Society of Women Engineers, women obtain fewer than 20 percent of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in engineering and computer and information sciences.
“I know I have sometimes felt alone as a woman in chemistry and in polymer science throughout my education, and having good mentors helped me continue on my path and ultimately realize my potential,” Glogowski said. “I strive to be a good role model, a source of inspiration and someone students can turn to when they are wondering what they are capable of. I can assure them that yes, they can do it, just like I did it.”
Hammill, who hopes to find a lab-based job in industry following graduation, said her work on research with Glogowski has given her opportunities for growth.
“There are so many ways in which working on Dr. G.’s research has helped me,” Hammill said. “Two of the biggest have been my growth in confidence and leadership skills.”
Increasing the “pipeline” of women in engineering is a challenging, national issue that has been of importance to organizations like NSF, SWE and others to improve the gender balance, Glogowski said.
“Although improvements have been made, it requires a concerted, widespread and continued effort to improve the recruitment and retention of women in engineering,” she said.