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--Go, Galileo, Go!

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For 'Polymer Gang,' Bonding is More Than Chemical

Mapping the Brain's Terrrain: Petya Radoeva '03 Explores Vision

Rachel Brulé '03: Policy Maker in the Making


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Polymers are everywhere. Run your fingers through your hair and you've mussed a natural polymer. Take a bottle of soda from the fridge and you've put your hands on the synthetic polymer PET, short for poly(ethylene terephthalate).

Ubiquitous they are, but polymers are far from ordinary. Few understand this better than Wei Chen, Mary E. Woolley Assistant Professor of Chemistry. Chen is studying ways to improve PET for use as a biomaterial--for beyond housing thirst-quenchers, PET plays a starring role in medical science. It is the material of choice for human implants, such as artificial heart vessels.

But PET has problems--biocompatibility problems. Like any foreign material that finds its way into the human body, implants made of PET set off biological alarms. The body, sensing an invader, sends out an army of proteins and cells to attack and surround the perceived intruder. As soon as a PET implant has been sutured into place, these microscopic foot soldiers begin their onslaught, coating surfaces and clogging grafted arteries. To solve this sticky problem, scientists "are looking for materials that the body will like," says Chen.

Now, a three-year, $136,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health is allowing Chen, and a select group of Mount Holyoke students, to address the biocompatibility problems that plague PET by designing materials for organ and tissue replacement that will repel the proteins and cells that tend to foul artificial implants. To do this, Chen and her students spend countless hours working to develop the ideal protein-repellant material by choosing different ways to bond protein-repellant PEG, another polymer, to the surface of PET.

The bonds formed between PEG and PET aren't the only ones made in Wei Chen's lab. "As much as a working relationship, Professor Chen really fosters a sense of community," says Anuja De Silva '03. "She encourages us to do things together and ask each other for help." Along with De Silva, Mamle Quarmyne '03, Piwai Dakwa '04, Surangkhana Martwiset '03, and Kwansima Quansah '04, are the members of what Chen has dubbed the "polymer gang." This tightly knit group has, under Chen's tutelage, become captivated with polymer chemistry.

"Gang" member Quarmyne has been using poly(vinyl alcohol) to modify polymeric materials--another major focus of Chen's work. The research has implications for an array of industrial and commercial applications. (Imagine, for example, an airplane made of a substance that repels water: no more deicing delays.) Last summer, in response to commercial interest in the research done by Quarmyne and Bryony Coupe '02, the College filed a U.S. patent on the work.

It was a big summer for Quarmyne, who also attended the national meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS). There--out of a field of hundreds of professors, scientists, and graduate students--Quarmyne's presentation detailing her poly(vinyl alcohol) work was named one of the top six "posters" in its division. She is philosophical about her success. "Doing independent work with Professor Chen, we present all the time. If you keep presenting the material, you get very comfortable with it."

Because of the complex, interdisciplinary nature of polymer chemistry, Chen usually begins working with students in their third year. De Silva, however, began working with Chen during the summer after her first year at Mount Holyoke. The following summer De Silva interned at Harvard. This year she is doing a thesis with Shaw Ling Hsu, professor of polymer science and engineering at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Like Quarmyne, De Silva will go to the ACS meeting this spring, where she is scheduled to deliver a talk on her research with Hsu. How does an undergraduate feel about addressing a roomful of prominent scientists? "I'm kind of nervous about it," says De Silva, "but if you have the results, you just present them."

"Results" are key for Chen, who insists that all of the students who work in her lab do productive research and publish their findings. De Silva, Quarmyne, and the other members of the polymer gang have clearly benefited from their mentor's expectations, as they apply to prestigious graduate programs with at least one, if not two, scholarly publications on their vitae.

For her part, Chen enjoys being able to say to a student, "Do you realize you are the first person on Earth to get this result?" Such moments, the chemist believes, can be transformative in the life of a young scientist.

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