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New Generation of USM Researchers Leading Polymer Science into the Future

Photo from The University of Southern Mississippi Photo from The University of Southern Mississippi
HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) -

The following is a news release from The University of Southern Mississippi

Success is hard to come by — it isn’t a given in any field. Harder, perhaps, is continuing an elevated level of success. In football, for instance, only a few quarterbacks have followed Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks with a Super Bowl victory of their own. More often than not, replacing a legend in the field is a difficult, almost impossible task.

Such is the challenge facing Dr. Jeffrey Wiggins, director of The University of Southern Mississippi’s School of Polymers and High Performance Materials. Wiggins and fellow faculty members follow in the footsteps of academic giants who built USM polymer science into one of the world’s best. And the football analogy is not as odd as one might suspect — the program has maintained a level of success even the Green Bay Packers would envy, and more than two dozen players in last year’s Super Bowl wore helmets that had incorporated technology developed in Southern Miss research laboratories.

And with a commitment to excellence that would make USM alumnus Ray Guy’s Oakland Raiders proud, Southern Miss polymer science has not stopped there. Just recently, the United States Army announced in May the awarding of a $4.9 million research contract to Southern Miss for development and evaluation of a helmet liner designed to provide enhanced head protection for warfighters — an important extension of the football helmet research.

“Southern Miss researchers have an opportunity to accelerate technology that ca n better protect our men and women in the military from head injuries and brain trauma,” said U.S. Senator Thad Cochran. “Advances in this area have the potential to be life-changing for American service members, who are too often exposed to the debilitating aftereffects of severe brain injuries. I have great hope for this research.”

Wiggins stresses that the Southern Miss Pneumatic Cushion liner system is radically different from traditional foam pads that have been the basis of energy absorption in helmets for decades.

“It’s important to note that commercialization of our helmet cushioning has proven the technology is manufacturing-ready and reproducible in high volumes, the economics are in the same range as foams, and cushioning levels can be ‘tuned’ where foams generally cannot,” said Wiggins. “This two-year program has the potential to yield substantial improvements in energy-absorbing capabilities leading to new standards for military and civilian protection.”

Continuing a Legacy of Success

For faculty, staff and students in the School of Polymers and High Performance Materials, the work for the U.S. Army is only part of a story that dates back 45 years, when Dr. Shelby Thames convinced then University President, Dr. William D. McCain, to allow for the start of a polymer science research program. Back then, and even today, some do not understand the significance of the field, which combines chemistry, physics, mathematics, computational sciences and engineering. Polymers are found in everyday products like shampoos and conditioners, but Southern Miss researchers have also worked in biomedical and medical sciences to control drug delivery and implant medical devices, as well as in advanced composites for high-strength, lightweight, next-generation aerospace materials.

The scope of the research is broad and has become so in a relatively short time. Over the period of just a few decades, Thames and others like longtime director, Dr. Robert Lochhead built the program from a humble start into a nationally ranked outfit that now offers undergraduate and graduate degree programs, robust research opportunities and a great partner for businesses and corporations. Thames, who later served as University President from 2002 to 2007, alone produced 169 scientific publications, 169 presentations, 31 issued patents and three filed patents.

Wiggins became director in 2014, and a new generation of faculty and students are continuing an amazing legacy of success. For starters, here are a few recent accomplishments:

In March, Dr. Sarah Morgan was presented the Fred E. Schwab Education Award of the Society of Plastics Engineers — one of only four such awards. She also won the American Chemical Society Division of Polymer Chemistry Distinguished Service Award for Excellence in Programming and Undergraduate Education.

In May, the University fortified its long-term relationship with The Boeing Company by signing a new master agreement to serve as the technology incubator of next-generation composite material systems. The new agreement builds on a decade-long working relationship between USM and Boeing, which currently has a research contract to utilize the assets of the Accelerator – the University’s business incubator. In addition, Boeing has recognized the University’s scientific contributions by presenting Southern Miss with the prestigious Silver Level Supplier of the Year Award each of the past two years.

Professor Dr. Derek Patton placed the University among an elite group of awardees in the inaugural National Science Foundation Research Traineeship Program. The $2.8 million award covers five years and is designed to encourage the development of potentially transformative models for science, technology, education and math (STEM) graduate training.

Dahlia Amato, a doctoral student was selected as a finalist for one of the prestigious Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans. She was one of 77 applicants chosen as finalists from approximately 1,200 applicants nationwide.

Abagail Williams, a first-year graduate student working with the Lott Research Group, has been named a National Science Foundation Fellow. Her graduate work focuses on fabricating glassy, mechanically robust materials capable of up-conversion. 

Cassandra Reese, also a first-year graduate student working with the Patton research group, also was named an NSF Fellow. In July 2014, she co-authored a paper in the Journal of Macromolecules.

Katrina Knauer, a doctoral student in the program, took home a third-place award in the Conference of Southern Graduate Schools Regional Three- Minute Thesis® (3MT®) competition, defeating opponents from Florida State, Auburn, Alabama and more.

The program’s founder is among those who have taken notice.

“I’m extremely proud of the success our students and professors are having and the cutting-edge research that’s taking place here,” Thames said, while also noting the prestigious national and international grants and awards earned by the school’s faculty in recent years. “They’re the best in the country at what they do.

“I’m also very impressed with the phenomenal job Dr. Jeffrey Wiggins has done in the short amount of time he’s been on board as director of the school, while also continuing to conduct his research and teaching,” he added. “He’s a great leader, extremely intelligent, wise beyond his years, and the perfect person for the job.”

Wiggins says an important aspect of a Southern Miss polymer science education is the opportunity to engage students with major corporations like GE Aviation, which has two plants in Mississippi, including one near the Hattiesburg campus in Ellisville. Teams have worked in polymer science labs at Southern Miss creating composite materials such as fan blades for the global marketplace. These advanced materials are lightweight and durable, which translates to fuel savings, lower energy costs, and reduced maintenance for sophisticated jet engines.

The work with GE Aviation “is one example of many where we integrate research and interaction with the professionals at these great corporations,” Wiggins said. “Where the professionals really get to know our students over time through the research that we do so very often, it is not unusual that students leave here with jobs and positions through those research collaborations.”

Mary Moore is one such student who earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from USM and is now is employed by GE Aviation.

“The polymer science program at USM teaches you the fundamental concepts of polymer science and how to be a critical and analytical thinker,” Moore said. “Those are some things that I found when I got out into the world and started working and dealing with different engineering majors. That's not a skill that many programs teach you—how to analytically think and dissect problems to come to a solution.”

Moore says the partnership works well.

“I think it's vital because GE always seeks to stay on the cutting edge of technology,” she said. “How can you stay on the cutting edge of technology if you’re not on the forefront of research? We’re always aware of what's new. We are inquiring as to ‘what are you working on? How can we use that to benefit what we’re doing at the plant?’ The mutual beneficial relationship part of it is that we’re talking to the students and selling them on coming to work with us.”

While some Southern Miss graduates like Moore are finding success in south Mississippi, others are spreading their wings across the country and around the world.

“Most of our undergraduates, all of our graduates, are recruited by our country's most prominent corporations or go on to professional schools and graduate programs,” Wiggins said. “Preparation of our undergraduate students is focused upon the next steps in their lives and careers to ensure that they have a lifetime of productivity and contribution in the sciences.

 “We can never lose sight of what we are really doing and that’s the preparation of the next-generation scientist,” he added. “I look at the students that are starting with us today and will start their work sometime around 2020. They will have careers that will last until 2050. Obviously it is a big challenge to anticipate what is going to make that individual a marketable and valuable employee in that time frame. We do not have to focus so much on our experience and what has happened in the past, but what society needs in the future.”

While Wiggins and the School’s faculty are focused on the present and the future, they remain committed to maintaining some aspects of the program.

“For more than 40 years, the school has focused on our curriculum and assured that the courses that are being taught and the education being delivered is of the highest quality,” Wiggins said.

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