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Future Shock

Rubber Soul: Leading Polymer Science Universities

University Business, Sept 2011

Think about everyday gizmos like cell phones, iPods, Kindles, and Cuisinarts. We take items of convenience for granted, yet without polymer science discovery and product development research, these consumer devices would not exist.

For over a century, polymer science faculty and graduate students have explored applications of a wide range of polymer materials, including nylon, neoprene, PVC, silicone, Kevlar, and even old-fashioned natural rubber. So, we offer a guided tour of today’s leading polymer university programs.

Our first stop on the national polymer university pathway takes us to The University of Akron (Ohio). At one time, global tire corporations like Goodyear, Firestone, and Goodrich were all headquartered in Akron. Today, Akron is regarded as a global leader in polymer research—no doubt a product of its tire and rubber industry heritage in the 20th century.

As far back as 1909, The University of Akron offered the first-ever courses in rubber chemistry and later developed the world’s first College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering. Today, the university offers a full range of programs at the undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate levels. Uniquely, The University of Akron plays host to the National Polymer Innovation Center, Goodyear Polymer Center, Global Polymer Academy, and the Akron Polymer Training Center.

Not surprisingly, the abundance of polymer science and technology research in Akron has had a positive impact on the surrounding regional and state-wide economy and plastics workforce development pool. Indeed, over 130,000 Ohioans are employed by nearly 2,440 polymer-related enterprises—helping to coin Northeastern Ohio as “Polymer Valley.”

 “Over the last decade, the University of Akron has evolved into a convener, developer, and anchor for clusters of innovation,” says Luis Proenza, president of the university. “We are growing a regional innovation ecosystem that involves many partners—not only from industry, business, and government, but also from academia, community groups, school systems and other stakeholders.”

Our second visit takes us to Pasadena, Calif., where the California Institute of Technology, or Caltech, was first chartered in 1891 as a preparatory vocational school. Impressively, in 2010 Caltech was ranked number two by the London Times Higher Education World University Rankings, and number one in the Times Engineering and Technology category. Today, Caltech offers a wide range of chemical engineering, biochemical, and molecular biophysics degrees—and supports a talented interdisciplinary faculty with research specialties in materials and polymers.

Perhaps less well-recognized, yet equally impressive is the University of Southern Mississippi, founded in 1910 and home to the School of Polymers and High Performance Materials. The university offers B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. degrees in Polymer Science and Engineering and programs in Sports and High Performance Materials—focused on the engineering, design, and use of polymers for athletes and military personnel, including sports equipment and protective athletic gear. These programs utilize expertise from the University’s School of Human Performance and Recreation – educating students in polymer science, biomechanics, sports materials science and exercise physiology.

Last and noteworthy, our reconnaissance of polymer universities takes us to the University of Massachusetts. Established in 1961, the Polymer Research Institute offered the university’s first courses in Polymer Science, and soon after the program celebrated its first master’s and doctoral graduates. Impressively, UMass Amherst hosts the Center for Industry Research on Polymers—an industry development research consortium funded by the National Science Foundation over 30 years ago. As a top ranked polymer program, the University has been recognized by the National Research Council and US News and World Report.  

In the year ahead, polymer science and plastics technology programs will touch almost every aspect of our lives—everything from packaging to prosthetics and protective sports equipment, and institutions like The University of Akron, California Institute of Technology, the University of Southern Mississippi, and the University of Massachusetts will be at the forefront of the emergent plastics horizon. Russell Broome, president of the Society of Plastic Engineers, frames the importance of the field. “Those of us tasked with inventing the future of plastics can barely imagine the wealth of opportunity and contribution plastics will make,” he says. “The world is on the crest of great change, and plastics will…be a central component to solving our biggest problems.”