URI Chemical Engineering Professor Granted NSF CAREER Award

Story by Krysta Murray

Ryan Poling-Skutvik, assistant chemical engineering professor at the University of Rhode Island (URI), was granted a 5-year $589,933 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to conduct research and education activities for “Telechelic Triblock Copolymers As a Platform to Design Functional Colloidal Gels.”

The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program offers the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.

“It’s really an honor to receive the CAREER award,” said Poling-Skutvik. “It recognizes the hard work and dedication of an entire team of researchers that I’ve been lucky to engage and collaborate with at URI.”

The proposal builds up the thesis research conducted by Poling-Skutvik’s graduate students Elnaz Nikoumanesh and Daniel Keane, as well as a team of talented undergraduates.

The primary objective of this project is to design a new class of soft materials called polymer-linked emulsions, which consist of oil droplets suspended in water and connected by polymer chains. These materials are greater than 99% liquid, but behave like solid materials, allowing the research team to test and answer questions about how materials transition from solid-like and liquid-like states. This transition from solid-like to liquid-like behavior is particularly important to understand how cells divide and grow in tissues, how to design inks for 3D printing, and how to process and manipulate slurries for battery manufacturing.

The group is unique in their approach to materials science by accounting not only for the physical and chemical interactions that control the properties of materials, but by also accounting for dynamics. For most soft materials, such as biological tissues, hydrogels, mucus, etc., the softness of the material is a benefit that allows nutrients to be delivered to cells, electric charges to be stored, or modulate how force is transferred. In each of these cases, the dynamics of the material are essential to their performance. This award provides Poling-Skutvik the opportunity to fully identify the impact and role of dynamic modes on the performance of soft materials, enabling the group to design advanced materials with unprecedented performance.

“I am a strong believer in collaboration and this award reflects key partnerships we have established with researchers and local community groups,” said Poling-Skutvik. His group has collaborated with Dr. Benjamin McDonald at Brown University, who is helping synthesize new polymers to improve material functionality. Additionally, to better understand how the polymer bridges between emulsion droplets, there has been collaboration with Dr. Thomas Gartner at Lehigh University. Poling-Skutvik wants to use this research to design materials that successfully replicate the structure, dynamics, and mechanics of biological tissues.

Although in the early stages, he expects the materials will more successfully replicate the transport properties observed in the body and can therefore be used to screen new drugs and therapeutics more rapidly and less expensively than standard methods. Secondly, he anticipates that these polymer-mediated materials will serve as more effective inks for 3D printing, which would allow the range of objects that can be produced with these methods including bioprinting applications to grow.

In addition to the research objectives, this project marks the beginning of an outreach program that focuses on developing the STEM identities and STEM awareness of LGBTQ+ students, working to improve the retention and experience of these students. The group is working together with Youth Pride, Inc., a non-profit in Providence, Rhode Island to deliver outreach experiences for middle and high school students that introduce them to soft materials through hands-on workshops.

“I am a strong believer in collaboration and this award reflects key partnerships we have established with researchers and local community groups,” said Poling-Skutvik.”