The early research efforts of two first-year polymer science graduate students, Erin Childers and John Swanson, have earned them National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships.
Both students, who are focused on materials science, were selected for the NSF Fellowship program based on their "potential to contribute to strengthening the vitality of the U.S. science and engineering enterprise." In 2012, the NSF offered 2,000 such grants.
Childers, of Cuyahoga Falls, is a 2011 graduate of Ursuline College. Attending on an athletic scholarship for cross-country and track, she graduated with a bachelor's degree in biology and chemistry. As an undergraduate, Childers did chemistry research with Dr. Sarah Preston at Ursuline, and Dr. John Protasiewicz, at Case Western Reserve University. She also was part of a research project in cell biology at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute with Dr. Paul Fox.
Now a part of the Becker Research Group, headed by Dr. Matthew Becker, an associate professor of polymer science, Childers is focused on how to improve the success rate of rotator cuff surgery. With a failure rate of 60 to 90 percent, depending on the tear size, Childers' approach is to develop a polymer scaffold with biodegradable and tissue regeneration properties that would speed healing time when placed at the injury site during surgery.
This early research is shaping the direction Childers is likely to take in her career.
"Whether I'm in academia or industry, I do know that I will do something in biomaterials or biomedicines because I really want to be able to help push the current medical procedures beyond what they are today," says Childers. "Instead of the many procedures that salvage, I would hope that we can have regeneration procedures that restore or rebuild, and that look natural and are not rejected by the body. I honestly believe that these goals can be accomplished by biomaterials — we just need to discover them."
Meanwhile, Swanson's research focus is on developing multifunctional degradable biomaterials for tissue engineering applications in the research group headed by Dr. Abraham Joy, assistant professor of polymer science. Swanson carried out research as an undergraduate in Dr. Philip Costanzo’s research group at California Polytechnic State University. He earned a B.S. in Biochemistry with a concentration in polymers and coatings in 2011.
"Right now, most biodegradable polymers, such as dissolvable stitches, are used simply for their desirable physical properties, they cannot tell your body to do anything," says Swanson, a native of Seattle. "My project focuses on the design and synthesis of a unique biodegradable polymer that can be used within the body to elicit a specific biologic response, such as re-growing blood vessels, while still being able to control the physical properties of the material.
"The challenge is to create well defined polymers decorated with multiple biological factors that will all work in unison to bring about the desired outcome," adds Swanson, who hopes to have a career in industry working on the research and development of new polymeric materials for biomedical and commercial applications.
The National Science Foundation Fellowship program is the oldest of its kind and has a long history of selecting recipients who achieve high levels of success in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines. Past recipients include Nobel Prize winners, a U.S. Secretary of Energy and the founder of Google.
Fellows are given a stipend of $30,000 for 12 months, in increments of $2,500 a month, and are awarded for a maximum of three years over a five-year period.