Research Spotlight: Better living through chemistry

Brent SumerlinBrent Sumerlin (left) works with a team of postdoctoral research associates, graduate and undergraduate students who fuse the fields of polymer, organic and biochemistries to develop novel materials with composite properties. His research has helped him earn a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Award, given to junior faculty members who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars in American colleges and universities.

Sumerlin, assistant professor of chemistry in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, will receive $475,000 over five years for two related nanotechnology research projects. The award also includes support for education outreach, and Sumerlin’s will fund a program for K-12 school districts and community colleges to help prepare and attract underrepresented minority students for SMU chemistry internship positions.

The first part of Sumerlin’s NSF-funded research will investigate how nano-scale polymer particles can be triggered to come apart in response to a chemical stimulus. One of the potential applications of the technology is an automatic treatment solution for diabetics – one that would release insulin from tiny polymer spheres when they encounter dangerous levels of glucose in the bloodstream.

“Researchers worldwide are looking toward methods of insulin delivery that will relieve diabetics of frequent blood-sugar monitoring and injections,” Sumerlin said.

The second aspect of the project involves making polymers with the ability to come apart and put themselves back together again – a technique that Sumerlin believes can be used to construct materials that are self-repairing. “We could potentially think about coatings for airplane wings that are damaged by debris during flight,” Sumerlin said. “After landing, we could quickly treat the coating, causing it to re-form itself.”

Learn more at the Sumerlin Research Group website

About Kathleen Tibbetts

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