Engineering, science staff receives funds to study properties of materials

The University of Akron's College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering has landed about $4 million in federal grants in the last five months for such varied research projects as one looking at the construction of bird nests and another involving tire performance.

It's a healthy amount to be awarded over a relatively short period of time, said Ali Dhinojwala, interim dean of the prestigious college.

UA is touting the awards after Eric Amis revealed in March he was stepping down as dean of the college. At the time, Amis told the Beacon Journal his "ability to be an effective dean was compromised by UA's responses to its financial problems."

News of the grants also comes after UA's board of trustees approved the phasing out of about 20 percent of the university's degree programs. At the same time, trustees approved investing in what UA officials have said are "key areas of strength and opportunity," including polymer and chemical sciences.

Notably, Dhinojwala said, is that "junior faculty members" are among the recipients, including Hunter King, a professor in the polymer science department, who joined the college’s faculty less than two years ago. He received a $262,987 grant from the National Science Foundation for research that involves relating the architecture of bird nests of polymer-based composites.

“He’s looking at how [the nests] hold together to withstand so much environmental challenges without using any glue,” Dhinojwala said.

Dhinojwala also noted that the grants were received at a time when the college's faculty numbers 29, down from 35 several years ago. The college will gain four faculty members — including two who will have joint appointments with other colleges — as part of UA's plan to invest in key areas.

The $4 million was awarded in the last three months of fiscal year 2018, ending June 30, and the first months of fiscal year 2019.

This compares with $2.7 million in federal grants awarded to the college for the entire fiscal year 2017 and $4.7 million received for all of fiscal year 2018. The $4.7 million does not include $2 million awarded to Matthew Becker, a professor in the department of polymer science, from the state of Ohio. This money, for Becker's research involving a degradable polymer film containing a non-opioid pain medicine, was awarded through the Ohio Third Frontier Commission effort to boost high-tech ways to respond to the opioid epidemic.

Along with the $262,987 grant awarded to Hunter, these federal grants were awarded over the five-month period:

• Dhinojwala, the dean, received a $1.25 million U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research grant to study how the arrangement of melanin particles in bird feathers and elsewhere in nature creates a spectrum of colors. Ultimately, they want to mimic those patterns to create synthetic colors. This grant is part of a $7.5 million federal grant that went to Dhinojwala as well as researchers at the University of Delaware, Northwestern University, the University of San Diego and Ghent University in Belgium.

• Abraham Joy, polymer science department, in partnership with GE Global Research and George Washington University, is using a $535,108 federal grant for a project involving human identification through the analysis of proteins.

• Younjin Min, polymer engineering department, landed $447,456 from the U.S. Department of Energy to study how tiny particles called geocolloids carry energy-related contaminant underground.

• Min also received $254,893 from the NSF to study lipids and protein interactions. Ultimately, the knowledge could be used in treating multiple sclerosis and other neurological disorders.

• The NSF awarded Sadhan Jana, chair of the polymer engineering department, $372,983 for a project involving the manufacturing of aerogels, highly porous foam and film sheets, for purification of water.

• Andrey Dobrynin, polymer science department, received a $349,932 NSF Designing Materials to Revolutionize and Engineer our Future research grant in partnership with the University of Connecticut. The research involves looking at how a form of graphite stabilizes polymers to make polymer composites and foams.

• Bryan Vogt, polymer engineering department, garnered $299,877 for a NSF study looking at ways to overcome mechanical weaknesses in 3D-printed plastics.

• Li Jia, polymer science department, received two types of NSF grants — one was for $50,000 and another was for $35,000 involving using polymers to improve tire performance. The $50,000 grant is to advance commercialization of a product to reinforce tires.