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PSU launches major new polymer chemistry initiative

June 11, 2014 1:00PM

PSU launches major new polymer chemistry initiative
Santimukul Santra (center), a polymer chemist and specialist in nanoscience and nanotechnology, is one of the persons brought to PSU as part of its Polymer Chemistry Initiative.

“With polymers, you can make this table,” Petar Dvornic said, slapping the hard surface for emphasis. “You can make the window. You can make the walls. Polymers taken away from our daily lives would be a catastrophe. Buildings would fall. There would be no cars or airplanes, no clothing, no computers, no food industry, no quality drinking water, no today’s medicine, no nothing as we know it. Without them we cannot imagine the civilization of the 20th and 21st century.”

Petar Dvornic mugshotIt’s not hard to get Dvornic, chairman of Pittsburg State University’s Department of Chemistry, excited. Just mention polymer chemistry. His passion for polymer chemistry, or as he prefers, polymer science, helped make him PSU’s choice to lead its new Polymer Chemistry Degree Program, which officially begins this fall.

PSU’s Polymer Science Initiative, which includes a new bachelor’s degree program and soon a new master’s program in polymer chemistry, was one of a handful of programs targeted for budgetary support by the Kansas Legislature in 2013.

With faculty now in place and final approval for the bachelor’s part of it from the Kansas Board of Regents, the program expects to enroll its first students this fall.

Dvornic said PSU’s new polymer chemistry initiative is an academic program that will not only create polymer chemists for high-value jobs in industry, research and government institutions, but also support important research at PSU in one of the fastest growing scientific areas.

Polymer science, Dvornic said, is a relatively new field.

“It is a very young science -- not even a century old -- but it developed exceptionally quickly,” Dvornic said.

In fact, Dvornic said, eminent scientific figures debated vociferously well into the 20th century over whether large molecules, of which polymers are made, actually could exist. Even after proof of their existence was published around 1931, he said, many traditional scientists did not take macromolecules seriously.

“Even into the 1980s, there were eminent people who would say, ‘why would anyone study polymers when that is the dirt that is left in the flask after you complete the distillation of the good stuff?’” Dvornic said.

Despite resistance in some quarters, interest in polymer research grew quickly and internationally recognized post-graduate polymer programs were established at large research institutions, most notably the University of Massachusetts, Case Western Reserve, Brooklyn Polytechnic, the University of Akron and Southern Mississippi. This has led to evolution of new sciences from polymer science, including macromolecular engineering, materials science and nanotechnology, and made it a major contributor to computer development and miniaturization, robotics, bio-medical sciences and up and coming personalized medicine, Dvornic said.     

The focus on big post-graduate programs, however, has left a niche that Dvornic said PSU can fill. That niche is a strong bachelor’s degree and master’s degree program in polymer chemistry that will feed the needs of both industry, which is looking for polymer scientists, and also graduate and post-graduate polymer chemistry programs in need of well-prepared students.

Dvornic said Pittsburg State was the logical choice for a polymer chemistry program because of a confluence of factors.

“First there was the KPRC (Kansas Polymer Research Center),” Dvornic said. “They had already established themselves in the polymer world, both nationally and internationally. They have the scientists, the research tradition and an excellent research facility.”

The second leg of the stool, already in place, was the Kansas Technology Center at PSU’s College of Technology and its extensive ability for processing polymers into objects.

“They have laboratories equipped for injection molding, blow molding, extrusion, pressing and all the techniques and technologies required to mold, shape and form what we make in the reactor,” Dvornic said. “And that is, in many cases, the final outcome of polymer science. It’s not the white powder that becomes polyethylene granules. The final outcome is the car bumper, the refrigerator, the garbage can, the airplane window, the CD, the sealed computer chip, or the film that comes out of the extruder.”

The third and final piece needed for the initiative was academic.

“We had a strong Chemistry Department, but with little or no connection to polymers,” Dvornic said. “The faculty had a strong organic chemistry foundation, physical chemistry foundation and bio chemistry foundation, but it did not have what was needed for the polymer chemistry foundation.”

Recent additions to the Chemistry Department faculty have addressed that issue, Dvornic said. The university hired two very promising young scientists.

“Drs. Ram Krishna Gupta and Santimukul Santra brought their research interests in some of the cutting-edge areas of today’s polymer science and nanotechnology,” Dvornic said.

The core faculty who will start the initiative include Gupta and Santra, along with Dvornic, who holds a Ph.D. in polymer science and engineering from the University of Massachusetts; Jeanne Norton in the College of Technology’s Plastics Engineering Program; and Charles (Jody) Neef, an organic chemistry professor with strong research interests in polymer chemistry.

Others across campus may also become involved in the initiative as it grows, Dvornic said.

“It will remain wide open for engagement of other PSU faculty and scientists interested in contributing to polymer education and research, particularly from the departments of chemistry, biology, physics, mathematics and the KPRC,” Dvornic said.

Now that the program is formed, the people are in place and first approval received, the work of recruiting students has begun.

“We expect to begin placement of our first bachelor’s graduates in their work positions in 2017,” Dvornic said. “It is a very exciting time.”

Karl Kunkel, dean of PSU’s College of Arts and Sciences, praised the Kansas Board of Regents, the Kansas Legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback for supporting an initiative that has the potential to make PSU a center for excellence in polymer science education, research and economic development.

“Our linking three solid areas of the university -- the Kansas Polymer Research Center, the Plastics Engineering Program in the College of Technology, and the Chemistry Department in the College of Arts and Sciences -- into a larger initiative creates synergy with significant impact,” Kunkel said. “It is unique in Kansas, the region, and the United States, and will tremendously benefit undergraduate and graduate students as well as industry in this fast developing and important scientific and production field. Over the past two years we've assembled a world-class faculty and created outstanding laboratories for teaching and research. I'm excited to see what the future holds for our polymer initiative.”

More on the PSU Department of Chemistry.

More on the Polymer Chemistry Initiative at PSU

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