Eastman Chemical veteran to head Virginia Tech polymers institute
S. Richard Turner, a research fellow at Eastman Chemical Company of Kingsport, Tenn., has been named director of the Macromolecules and Interfaces Institute at Virginia Tech.
Macromolecules and Interfaces Institute (MII) is an interdisciplinary group of about 50 faculty members who are involved in various aspects of advanced polymeric materials research and education, including novel polymer synthesis, interfaces and adhesion studies, advanced composites, biomaterials, diagnostics, drug delivery, and materials for alternative energy devices.
"Polymer science cuts across disciplines in six colleges," Turner said. "MII is facilitating interdisciplinary research to create molecules for materials with the right properties to meet many needs. We want to do internationally recognized science and educate students, and we want to be the friendliest, easiest place for industries to come to so that eventually our discoveries will help society."
Turner worked for Xerox and Exxon before joining Eastman Kodak Company in 1982. He transferred to Eastman Chemical in 1993. He has been involved in a broad range of basic and applied research, including photoconducting polymers and water-soluble polymers. Projects he worked on at Eastman Chemical that the general public would be aware of include making plastics for packaging food, water, and other beverages, and clear, chemically resistant plastics for medical applications.
He also traveled with Eastman's new business group, meeting with small companies and venture capital organizations. "As companies' technologies mature, they are looking for new growth opportunities," Turner said. "One of my roles is to try to improve our interface with industry. The academic industrial interface is evolving to a different relationship than it was ‘in the old days’,"
"Companies in the past had large corporate research labs. I would visit universities and bring projects back to my industrial laboratory and start a new science based program. Now focused industrial research labs have replaced corporate labs and most efforts go toward improving their existing products," he said. While some large companies may continue to support longer term new research initiatives, "it is primarily small, start-up companies that do the venture work and innovate new university discoveries."
Beginning with the Polymer Materials and Interfaces Laboratory, established in 1978, several polymer programs have grown up at Virginia Tech, including the Center for Adhesive and Sealant Sciences and the Center for Composite Materials and Structures, both established in 1982; the Biobased Materials Center, established in 1987; the Virginia Institute for Materials Systems, established in 1988; and the National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center for High Performance Polymeric Adhesives and Composites, established in 1989. These centers have brought in millions of dollars in funding over the years and built Virginia Tech's polymer education program into the number five program in the nation, according to the U.S. News survey.
But some of the leaders of those programs — Jim Wightman, Wolfgang Glasser, Garth Wilkes, and Ken Reifsnider — have retired and others — Jim McGrath, Tom Ward, and John Dillard — are eligible for retirement, "so MII will have some large gaps to fill in the future," Turner said.
And the focus of polymer research is evolving, he said. "Early research was primarily focused on new polymers that could serve as replacements for metal and natural fibers. This work led to the polymer age that we live in today. While continuing research is needed to support this enormous commercial enterprise, current emphasis – particularly in academe – is turning to polymers that enable things to happen – new functions, shapes, and responses. McGrath's fuel cell membrane is an enabling material, not a structural material. Polymers' new shapes and architectures – at the molecular and nano scale -- make possible surface-active materials for sensors, molecular drug delivery systems, new diagnostic capabilities, new energy systems, and more. There are applications in health, energy, and communication," he said.
"One of our exciting resources is the Macromolecular Science and Engineering (MACR) graduate degree program, directed by Professor Judy Riffle," Turner said. MACR graduated its first student last spring and enrolled its 40th student this fall. "It has achieved an outstanding reputation since it was started in 2001," Turner said.
In addition to the core curriculum, MACR coursework offers technology topics in civil infrastructure, composites and structures, adhesives and interface science, and most recently, applications in life sciences. Opto- and microelectronics will be developed as a future focus area for MACR studies.
Turner said he is developing a five-year strategic plan. "There are some areas we don't need to enter, some areas where we have a head start, and some areas where we need to deepen our capacity. We want to be the focal point for the polymer community at Virginia Tech and to work as efficiently as we can," he said.
He plans to hold campus wide communication sessions with posters, workshops, and barbeque to kick off the planning process.
A native of Nashville and long-time resident of Kingsport, Turner received his undergraduate degree in chemistry from Tennessee Tech and his Ph.D. at the University of Florida. He has been active with the American Chemical Society, chairing the Polymeric Materials: Science and Engineering (PMSE) Division in 1992, was general secretary of the Macromolecular Secretariat in 1995, and is on the Petroleum Research Fund advisory board. He has served on National Science Foundation review panels and is on the KensaGroup scientific advisory board. He has served on the editorial board of several journals, holds more than 95 patents and has more than 80 publications. He received a Distinguished Inventors Award from Eastman Kodak in 1993, and was selected a PMSE Fellow in 2002. In 2004, he was named Tennessee Tech alumnus of the year, received the University of Florida chemistry department outstanding alumni award, and was named one of Tennessee's Top 10 Scientists by Business Tennessee magazine.
Learn more about MII at http://www.mii.vt.edu. Information on the formation of MII may be found at http://www.vtnews.vt.edu/story.php?relyear=2004&itemno=321.