Polymer professor awarded prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER award


Dr. Junpeng Wang, assistant professor in the School of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering (SPSPE), has been awarded a prestigious CAREER Award by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Wang’s award includes a federal grant for research and education activities for five consecutive years in the amount of $617,000. The funding will go toward his project “CAREER: CAS: Highly Stable Depolymerizable Polymers with Tunable Thermal and Mechanical Properties as Sustainable Materials.” The NSF’s Early Career Development (CAREER) Program supports the early development of non-tenured professors and aims to develop their careers, not only as outstanding researchers but also as effective, committed educators. NSF gives these awards once a year.

Wang’s project aims to develop recyclable polymers that can be broken down into the monomers from which they are made. The recycled monomers can be reused to prepare the polymers, allowing for a circular use of materials, which not only helps to preserve the finite natural resources used in polymer production, but also addresses the issue of unwanted end-of-life accumulation of polymers.

Dr. Junpeng Wang

Dr. Junpeng Wang

“I am so thankful and excited about the timely support from the National Science Foundation on the CAREER Award,” says Wang. “It is great encouragement for me and my students. Its funding will allow us to continue our amazing journey on polymer sustainability.”

Synthetic polymers, including rubber and plastics, are used in nearly every aspect of daily life. The dominance of synthetic polymers is largely driven by their excellent stability and versatile mechanical properties. However, due to their high durability, waste materials composed of these polymers have accumulated in the land and oceans, causing serious concerns for the ecosystem. In addition, since over 90% of these polymers are derived from finite fossil feedstocks, the production of these materials is unsustainable if they cannot be recycled and reused.

Besides demonstrating the preparation and recycling of the polymers, this project will also contribute to education and broadened participation in materials science and sustainability through developing undergraduate and graduate courses, recruiting underrepresented minority researchers and reaching out to local high schools and museums. For example, Wang will continue to incorporate the research findings into his elective course Physical Organic Chemistry in Materials Science. This course has also allowed him to include hands-on Gaussian computation to enhance the integration of experimental and computational research.

“Our focus in the next decade is to design new polymers that can help create a more sustainable use of plastics,” says Dr. Ali Dhinojwala, interim director of the School of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering. “We are excited that our junior faculty members are developing exciting new chemistry and processes to achieve these goals.”

Wang is also active in outreach activities. He leads the collaborative outreach program between the SPSPE and St. Vincent-St. Mary (SVSM) High School, which allows SVSM students to conduct mentored research at The University of Akron. He is currently starting another collaborative outreach program with Copley High School. In addition, Wang is collaborating with the Akron Children’s Museum to develop a multimedia exhibition called “Polymers and Life,” which will include cards, videos and hands-on projects.

Congratulations, Dr. Wang on your well-deserved recognition!