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For senior Marquis Scholar Jessica Calaman of Newville, Pa., a graduate of Big Springs High School, the best way to learn about polymers is to make her own. For her honors project in chemical engineering, she has traveled to the University of Pittsburgh to synthesize new polymers using a method that Billie Kline, visiting assistant professor of chemical engineering at Lafayette, developed as a graduate student there. Calaman is determining properties such as viscosity, size and molecular weight, absorption of water, and melting point.

“The polyesters that she is working with are novel, which is relevant in two ways,” says Kline. “First, we expect that the properties will be distinct from many existing polyesters in that they will want to interact with water more. Second, they are not easily synthesized by conventional chemical methods. During graduate school, I developed a method that uses enzymes as the catalyst to easily synthesize these new polyesters.”

Because many polymer properties are dependent on it, it is important to develop an accurate method for measuring size. This can be difficult because polymers are made up of long chains with hundreds or thousands of molecules that can branch out in many different directions.

Calaman is using various equipment to test viscosity — how a substance flows — and determine a correlation between viscosity and molecular weight. “This kind of work has been done before, but researchers have used different techniques,” says Calaman. “And we don’t know the molecular weight of this branch of main polymer.”

As more polymers are being inserted into the body as beneficial drug carriers that dissolve, examining their characteristics provides information that may be useful to the biomedical industry, notes Calaman. Kline can establish these qualities in part by building upon the work conducted in Calaman’s thesis project.

“I’m really interested in this opportunity to do research,” says Calaman “I’m not doing this to get into grad school. It’s a unique experience and a challenge to learn more about polymers. There’s a lot that I have to figure out because of my lack of experience.”

The honors project allows for more in-depth pursuit of academic interests than can be achieved in a normal class, Calaman says. “You also have a better relationship with the professor,” she adds. “We meet once a week to talk, we have fun with it. She’s not up there lecturing to me. This an opportunity to work on your own and decide how you want to do something.”

“Professor Kline loves polymers,” adds Calaman. “She gets excited about them and has a lot of knowledge. She’s really up on current research.”

What impresses Kline most about Calaman is her enthusiasm and self-motivation. “I don’t have to tell her to read an article or give her deadlines, because she will get them done ahead of time,” Kline says. “In fact, as a visiting professor for three semesters, I had not planned on performing research. Jessica had the initiative to come to me. She wanted to know if I had an idea for an honors project that we could pursue. The fact that we are collaborating on this project is very much a result of Jessica’s hard work, determination, and drive to learn new areas within chemical engineering.”

Calaman, who is minoring in German, is secretary of the Lafayette student chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. As a Writing Associate in the College Writing Program, she helps first-year students with their assignments. She participates in the German Club and plays the flute in various Lafayette ensembles.

Categorized in: Academic News