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Cottrell Award Supports Byers' Work on Polymers

Jeffery Byers (Photo by Robyn Gesek)

By Office of News & Public Affairs |

Published: Apr. 9, 2015

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Jeffery A. Byers has received a $75,000 Cottrell Scholar Award from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, America’s second-oldest foundation and the first devoted wholly to science.

The award will support Byers’ research into polymers, long chains of atoms or molecules found in everything from plastic grocery sacks to DNA in living cells.

“Cottrell Scholars are provided with unique opportunities to launch and establish truly outstanding careers,” said RCSA President Robert Shelton. “In addition to receiving financial support for research, scholars belong to a community whose members help each other to develop the skills and relationships necessary to become academic leaders.”

Byers is exploring the use of a specific type of iron molecule as a unique catalyst for synthesizing a “copolymer” — a polymer that combines two or more different molecules — in this case lactide, carbon dioxide and epoxide.

Other researchers have made strides in combining some of these chemicals into useful thermoplastics. Byers, however, is among the first to experiment with combining all of them to form useful new biodegradable polymers. The process also capitalizes on using environmentally friendly and abundant iron-based catalysts to achieve this goal.

While there are no guarantees in fundamental research such as this, if Byers is successful in creating useful catalysts based on this chemistry, the end result could be new or improved degradable plastics and other materials yet to be conceived.

The Cottrell Scholar Award also supports innovation in education. Byers said he plans to use some of the funds to develop new software for electronic tablets to aid undergraduate students to more quickly understand molecular symmetry, a fundamental concept in chemistry.

Byers will also create newdemonstrations and teaching aids for introductory chemistry courses to encourage active learning based on problem solving. Byers said he also hopes to institute an undergraduate-led outreach program to encourage high school students, primarily from under-represented minorities, to pursue careers in science.