"There is real support for collaboration and creative problem-solving here.”
Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering Kat Wakabayashi says his favorite aspect of teaching at Bucknell is how involved he gets to be with his students. "The students here are the main focus," he says. "They take an active part in research, write up their papers and, in many cases, present them at national conferences themselves." He points out that typical college students, even at large research institutions, do not get opportunities like that as undergraduates.
Wakabayashi is a materials engineer by training, with a specialty in polymers such as plastics and rubbers. In his lab, he and his students find ways to develop polymers with enhanced properties that can have applications across a variety of industries. Whether it's a lighter material to replace aluminum alloys for the aerospace industry, biodegradable cutlery to protect the environment or a performance fabric that regulates body temperature more efficiently, the answer is polymers.
Polymers can be improved by mixing them to create blends, or by adding fillers to them to make composites, he says. Generally, this is done using high temperatures and a machine called an extruder. Wakabayashi's lab contains a state-of-the art extruder capable of this high temperature approach and of creating sub-zero temperatures as well.
Using extremely cold temperature is a technique Wakabayashi was introduced to as a postdoctoral researcher, and it is an integral part of his research today. Recently, his research group put its own spin on the process and developed an approach to creating polymer composites or blends using extreme heat and cold simultaneously. "This is an example of my students' input taking the experiment to new levels," he says. He and his students have published a journal article and applied for a patent on this creative and novel approach.
Wakabayashi is thankful to have free access to laboratory facilities that feature top-quality, research grade equipment. He notes that in the course of testing their polymers, his students use the equipment found in labs all over campus including those in the chemistry, biology and geology departments. Everywhere they go, he says, the equipment is first-rate and the students are trained to use it correctly. Plus, he says, the fact that it is shared across campus says a lot about Bucknell. "I appreciate working in such an open environment," he says. "There is real support for collaboration and creative problem-solving here."
Posted October 3, 2013
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