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Darrin Pochan receives NSF Faculty Early Career Development Award

2 p.m., March 15, 2004--Darrin Pochan, assistant professor of materials science and engineering at UD, has been awarded the National Science Foundation’s prestigious Faculty Early Career Development Award.

The five-year, $440,000 award will support Pochan’s research on the use of biopolymers to construct advanced materials.

The award, one of the National Science Foundation’s highest honors for young faculty members, recognizes and supports the early career development activities of “those teacher-scholars who are most likely to become the academic leaders of the 21st century.”

Pochan will study the feasibility of using biomolecules, namely synthetic polypeptides, as matrix materials for composite materials.

“There are two interesting twists in the work,” he said. “The first is that by using biomolecules as the major component in the composite materials one has the opportunity to produce new engineering or commodity materials, which could be something as mundane as plastic wrap or plastic parts in a device, or biomaterials, such as bone replacement implants or burn healing films, with both the mechanical and biological properties of interest.”

For example, Pochan said, the research could lead to the creation of a plastic film that can keep food fresh by limiting oxygen exposure and also can kill bacteria and biodegrade over a matter of weeks to months.

It also could lead to a bone replacement material that is inherently strong but can eventually erode in the body while encouraging the development of natural bone.

“The second twist,” Pochan said, “is that the polypeptide materials will be filled with nanoscopically sized fillers to enhance the mechanical properties. The use of these fillers, including inorganic clays and self-assembled peptide fibrils, allows one to make a strong material even stronger by simply adding a little of the filler.”

Essentially, he said, the overall properties of the nanocomposite material do not change but desired mechanical properties are enhanced. The plastic wrap, for example, would still be tough, elastic and optically transparent but, with the filler, would be even tougher and would keep oxygen out longer due to increased barrier properties.

“I am particularly excited about the fillers that are what we call self-assembled peptide fibrils,” Pochan said. “This idea involves the use of a biological structure that in nature is associated with quite devastating diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Type II diabetes, and the ability to take advantage of the structure for materials properties.”

When a person has Alzheimer’s, large and stiff protein fibers are formed in the brain tissue due to natural proteins aggregating and not performing their natural function, Pochan said. Similar but benign fibers can be formed in the laboratory and then used as a filler in a composite.

“If one has a biomolecule matrix and fills it with the protein fibers, then a nanocomposite is produced that is completely made of biological molecules,” he said. “These are especially promising as biocompatible, biodegradable, strong materials.”

Pochan is conducting the research in collaboration with Joel Schneider, a UD assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry who also won an NSF Faculty Early Career Development Award recently. The Schneider group is helping with the design and synthesis of peptides for fiber formation to be used as fillers.

Pochan is also working with Timothy Deming, associate professor of materials and chemistry at the University of California Santa Barbara, in order to design and synthesize the polymeric peptide matrix materials.

Kristi L. Kiick, also of the UD Department of Materials Science and Engineering, was presented the NSF Faculty Early Career Development Award in 2003.

“Darrin Pochan is an energetic, creative scientist and educator who represents a new breed of 21st-century materials scientist,” John Rabolt, chairperson of UD’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, said. “Both he and Kristi Kiick work at the interface of established disciplines and will eventually eradicate the boundary between traditional materials science and chemistry, physics and biology. They continue to set an exceptionally high standard of excellence for young faculty in our department.”

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