A Legacy of Excellence – How One Researcher Can Inspire Generations of Innovative Scientific Minds
February 3, 2021
In science, there are few professional relationships more profoundly influential than the one between advisor and student. When NSF invests in a researcher’s work, it also supports the graduate students and post-docs who help their advisor produce results, while training to become researchers themselves. This access to cutting edge science and quality mentoring can be especially important for students who belong to groups under-represented in science. One example of how a lifetime of NSF funding can be leveraged to produce a “family tree” of scientific excellence can be found in the career of Dr. Paula T. Hammond.
Dr. Hammond, the Department Head of Chemical Engineering at MIT, is a pioneering scientist in the broad, interdisciplinary fields of materials and nanotechnology. Researchers in these areas explore the physics, chemistry, and engineering of materials that can be used to improve products in wide-ranging fields like aerospace, medicine, and robotics. Their work ranges from the theoretical and experimental in determining how molecules behave in different environments to the practical application of this knowledge to constructing better materials for the things we interact with every day. Hammond’s recent work focuses on biomedical applications. She creates new biomaterials that enable improvements in drug delivery and medical device performance, advancements that are especially important for effective cancer treatment. She is one of only 25 scientists in American history to be elected to all three National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. While Dr. Hammond has received many prestigious awards for her contributions to science, perhaps one of her most enduring legacies can be found in the students she has mentored and trained. An NSF grantee since early in her career, through the CAREER program, she is a role-model to researchers who have since become active and impactful NSF-funded scientists.
One of her students was Dr. Thomas Epps, III, who is now the Allan and Myra Ferguson Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Delaware. Epps’s work focuses on nanostructure-forming polymers and polymer blends, intricate, soft materials with applications in medicine and energy technology. Notably, his lab is working on sustainable plastics, trying to build polymers from biomass and plastic waste streams and control their environmental impact. He has received many early career awards, including an NSF CAREER Award of his own. Epps is also building his own legacy: he is currently advising a team of six post-docs, ten graduate students, and four undergraduates.
Another former Hammond student is Dr. LaShanda Korley, a Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Delaware. Like Dr. Epps, she received a CAREER award from the NSF Division of Materials Research as a new faculty member. Dr. Korley’s innovative work takes inspiration from materials found in nature. She is developing functional polymeric materials motivated by the architectural and manufacturing strategies of natural systems for applications ranging from delivery vehicles for biomedical engineering to actuators for soft robotics. She has also expanded her research focus to meet one of the critical global challenges of today, working on sustainable routes to new high-performance polymers and new approaches to plastics recycling and upcycling. Korley is currently a mentor to three post-docs, nine graduate students, and four undergraduates.
Networks like Hammond’s, supported through NSF-funded research, can lead to inspiring, productive, lifelong collaborations. Together, Epps and Korley have created the new Center for Hybrid, Active, and Responsive Materials (CHARM) at the University of Delaware. CHARM, which is an NSF Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC), will use the power of materials science and allied disciplines to enable innovations in biomedicine, security, sensing, and other fields that impact our daily lives. Importantly, the center will partner with Delaware State University and Clafin University, two historically black institutions, giving undergraduates experience in cutting-edge research and a pathway to graduate studies. It will also fund paid internships for high school students to engage them in research and help them prepare for college. They also co-organize an NSF Future Faculty Workshop series that was original led by Dr. Hammond. A continued focus on mentoring ensures their scientific “family tree” is growing all the time.
One final example of their shared legacy is the success of Dr. Korley’s student, Symone Alexander, who started a position in 2021 as an Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering at Auburn University. Dr. Alexander was an NSF Graduate Research Fellow while she was a student, a program that supports outstanding graduate students in STEM fields. She shares her advisor’s passion for using nature as inspiration for new materials, leading to work that investigated the physics of ultrafast motion in insects and plants. Understanding how this motion works can help us to create lightweight, strong materials that are capable of functioning under extreme conditions. Her research group is currently designing dietary fiber-inspired materials that remove toxins from the digestive system and investigating the resilience of biomaterials that are repeatedly exposed to high frequency strain. Alexander began mentoring her first two graduate students in January 2021.
Drs. Hammond, Epps, Korley, and Alexander are an example of how a single early career NSF award to a promising researcher unlocks a cascade of opportunities. Over a lifetime, NSF is with them every step of the way, not only to help researchers like these develop their dynamic research portfolio and answer scientific questions that unlock future technologies, but also by providing funding to invest in a more diverse next generation of researchers. Thanks to Dr. Hammond, her former students, and their students, this branching legacy of excellence in science and mentoring will benefit the United States for years to come.
- Are you a PI? Start your own broadening participation legacy here.
- Video: Black Lives in Science panel (scroll down for embedded video)
- Video: Korley NSF Distinguished Lecture on the Bioeconomy
The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.