Foundation series

Polymer gel researcher wins National Science Foundation Early Career Development Award

Svetlana Morozova, assistant professor of macromolecular science and engineering, focuses on understanding what happens when gels interact with surfaces

(This is one of many stories about the 2022 NSF CAREER Award winners at Case Western Reserve University.)

Svetlana Morozova, a scientist at Case Western Reserve University whose research explores the unique properties and possibilities of polymer gels, has been awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) Early Career Development Program (CAREER) grant. ) to further examine how they interact with surfaces of other materials.

Polymer gels are linked three-dimensional networks of long-chain molecules. These materials are used in everyday items, from contact lenses to baby diapers, and are the subject of increasing research as scientists search for better ways to develop gels for medicine and engineering.

Svetlana Morozova

Morozova’s lab at Case Western Reserve studies several aspects of these gels, including how they react when handled and how they interact with other materials. The NSF CAREER award, $610,000 for five years, will support this latest research, in particular.

“Think of these gels as nanoscale sponges,” said Morozova, assistant professor of macromolecular science and engineering at the Case School of Engineering. “Any kind of energy applied to this sponge can really change the behavior of these materials. That’s what makes them so attractive to many researchers.

The research is not limited to manufactured polymer gels, but also includes natural gels, such as the cornea and connective tissues of the human body.

“And that means there are a lot of apps out there as well,” she said. “These applications include how a contact lens reacts on the surface of your eye or how a liquid suture reacts on the surface of your skin, but even how cells interact with each other when they reproduce.”

Venkataramanan “Ragu” Balakrishnan, Dean Charles H. Phipps of the Case School of Engineering, congratulated Morozova. He said the NSF award was an indication of his “innovative approach, clear vision and potential for lasting positive impact from his work”.

Venkataramanan's photo
Venkataramanan “Ragu” Balakrishnan, Charles H. Phipps Dean of the Case School of Engineering

The CAREER award is considered NSF’s most prestigious grant for junior faculty members “who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to advance the mission of their department or organization.” .

Balakrishnan said Morozova’s research exemplifies what it means to be an engineer, as she “identifies the gaps in today’s technologies and works to fill those gaps by creating breakthrough materials that have the potential for transformative insights that can ultimately result in advanced products and better health outcomes.”

“That’s exactly what engineers are supposed to do: we see something that can be improved and we work to fix it, for the good of all,” Balakrishnan said.

Polymers all around us

Polymer gels are a more recent development of polymers – the molecules made up of linked chains of individual units (called monomers), found virtually everywhere on earth.

These polymers are naturally present in starches such as pasta and potatoes, in the cellulose of plants and in fabrics such as cotton and wool or in the keratin of nails and hair.

Since molecules can be cross-linked to make materials with different properties, such as density, strength and elasticity, they are particularly malleable and durable. Manufactured polymers (rayon, nylon, and polyethylene, among others) have exploded over the past century. They can be found in plastic water bottles, nylon jackets, rubber tires, and affect virtually every aspect of modern life.

Educational Outreach Programs

The NSF CAREER award also focuses on educational outreach. Morozova plans a three-part educational program to “advance local knowledge and appreciation of polymer science, which is one of the major industries in the Cleveland area,” she said.

It provides for:

  • Create a series of educational demonstrations with Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) to help high school adults learn science concepts, with a focus on polymer science and recycling.
  • Establish an annual week-long workshop at Case Western Reserve to educate and engage local polymer industries on new techniques used in this study.
  • Train new leaders in the field of polymer science by mentoring high school students in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District through a “Polymer Envoy” program, annual science fair presentations held at John Hay High School and laboratory experiments for undergraduate students.

“We think it’s so important to get young people interested in polymer science and to teach everyone that these materials can be sustainable,” Morozova said. “And we see that as something that can get bigger. We want to interest as many young people and adults as possible.

/Public release. This material from the original organization/authors may be ad hoc in nature, edited for clarity, style and length. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author or authors. See in full here.