Students can get involved in research pretty quickly once they come to Bucknell. It's not so much the exact area they choose, it's the experience of learning how to carry out scientific research that's going to help them be successful in whatever they do.

Eric Tillman

Polymers have increasing uses as advanced materials, says Professor of Chemistry Eric Tillman. The large molecular chains of small repeating units are much more than simply everyday plastics: With some manipulation, they can deliver drugs to specific cells, collect and convert solar energy, and be used in light-emitting diode, or LED, displays.

"The properties of a polymer are largely defined by the small units from which it is derived. If you can understand the reactions involved in connecting these small components, you can open the door for a lot of specialty uses," says Tillman. "To create a polymer that has a certain quality, you might need put molecular groups at an exact spot in a polymer chain. For instance, if you wanted to design a polymer for drug delivery purposes, you have to be careful about what it's made of and how it will degrade so that you know how it will interact with certain cells in the body."

Tillman and his research team consisting of undergraduate and Masters-level students are doing just that in the lab, where they use "precise polymer synthesis" to improve or create reactions that can be used to build different polymer shapes, sizes and groups. Working with vacuum lines to prevent oxygen from interfering, the team performs reactions that build polymers at temperatures typically of 75 or 80 degrees Celsius. When the process is complete, the researchers check to see if the reaction was a success by several characterization methods.

"We might, for instance, use chromatography to determine the polymer's size. Or, if we know a group of molecules embedded in our materials absorbs at a certain wavelength, we can use spectroscopy to find out to what extent the group is there," says Tillman, who says he makes sure students are involved "every step of the way."

The students not only present their results in poster presentations, but they also get listed as co-authors with Tillman in articles published in scholarly journals. Tillman and Andy Voter '12 have even filed for a patent on a reaction that turns linear polymers into cyclic ones, which transfer energy more efficiently. Voter is jointly pursuing a doctor of philosophy and doctor of medicine (Ph.D./MD) at University of Wisconsin.

"Students can get involved in research pretty quickly once they come to Bucknell," says Tillman. "It's not so much the exact area they choose, it's the experience of learning how to carry out scientific research that's going to help them be successful in whatever they do."

Posted October 2012

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