Everywhere she looked, Tiffany Thompson could see polymers — materials made from long strands of molecules chained together in a pattern. From the time she undertook her first polymer science project, her curiosity was captivated by the knowledge that polymers are absolutely everywhere in our lives.

That curiosity drove her to pursue a Ph.D. in the macromolecular science and engineering degree program at Virginia Tech. And now, nearing the end of her graduate student career, she has become the first-ever recipient of the Richard Turner Eastman Fellowship Award. 

The fellowship was created in early 2023 to honor Turner, who also has been driven by an intense curiosity about polymer science throughout his influential career. Turner served for 10 years as the director of the Macromolecules Innovation Institute (MII), Virginia Tech’s internationally recognized polymer science and engineering program. The new fellowship involves a $5,000 award to support the selected MII student's research and academic expenses. For example, it could be used to help pay for travel to conferences where that student will present work. 

Prior to his arrival at Virginia Tech, Turner was a research fellow at Eastman Chemical Co., establishing a relationship so profound that, decades later, leaders at Eastman would think of him when naming their fellowship. The award is specifically intended to support students at Virginia Tech, an indication of the strong collaborative relationships that the institute has cultivated with industrial partners to achieve great research advancements.

“Richard Turner is beloved at both Eastman and Virginia Tech, making profound contributions to polymer science and impacting generations of scientists across a long, 53-year career,” said Emmett O’Brien, who earned a Ph.D. at Virginia Tech and is now a product specialist at Eastman. “Creating this fellowship award in honor of Dr. Turner means his legacy of mentorship and dedication to research will live on into perpetuity through students like Tiffany Thompson.”  

Receiving the fellowship was not Thompson’s first introduction to Turner – he had long served as a mentor and research partner to Thompson and her advisor, Assistant Professor of chemistry Michael Schulz. Turner’s expertise in the science of polyesters overlapped perfectly with Thompson’s current projects.

Three women in business casual clothing stand close together and smile, with the football field at Lane stadium in the background.
Tiffany Thompson (at center) talked with visiting scientists from Eastman during the 2023 Macromolecules Innovation Institute Polymer Sustainability Workshop: Katherine Hofmann (at left) and Casey Elkins. Photo courtesy of Tiffany Thompson.

Thompson’s research is dedicated to enhancing the properties of polyesters – the same types of polymers used today to manufacture much of our clothing, beverage containers, and upholstery. But the applications of Thompson’s polyesters would be quite different. She is working to design sustainable materials that can better withstand extreme temperatures and UV light, materials that facilitate the continuous neutralization of microbial threats, and materials that are impact resistant and 3D printable. Her work extends across a breadth of applications including coatings, packaging, biomedical devices, antimicrobial surfaces, binder materials, and electronics.  

From a sustainability standpoint, polyesters have outstanding attributes, Turner said. These polyester chains can easily be broken down into their individual building blocks and then reassembled into new products, making the process of recycling them more effective than with most other types of polymers. Additionally, while many plastics are manufactured from petroleum sources, polyesters also have the potential to be created from renewable, bio-based sources.

Tiffany Thompson uses a handheld tool to adjust a small, metallic laboratory instrument.
Tiffany Thompson installs a sample into the head of an instrument called the Dynamic Mechanical Analyzer. She uses the instrument to analyze the properties of the polymers she synthesizes. Photo by Reilly Henson for Virginia Tech.

“It’s been truly exciting to see first-hand the utility of polymers and their potential to address real-world issues today.” said Thompson. “The advancements made possible by these materials are far reaching, but they do not come without challenges. Issues of sustainability, renewability, recyclability, and environmental toxicity are important areas of current scientific focus. I find it fulfilling to engage in research that’s a part of the solution to these challenges. This is what drives me to keep moving forward in my research, using polymers to address sustainability issues while retaining and improving on the current benefits enabled by them.”

Turner has seen the field of polymer science evolve significantly over the years. At the time when he graduated with his Ph.D., there were very few universities that focused on polymer science. But now, both fundamental and applied polymer research have earned their places in higher education. Looking to the future, he believes the new Eastman fellowship award will provide much-deserved recognition and encouragement to students who are likely to become leaders in academia, industry, national labs, and beyond.

“I learned a tremendous amount when I was at Eastman,” Turner said, “and I’m sure Tiffany will experience the same thing as she moves forward in her career. I’m very honored that Eastman and MII decided to create this award in my name. I look forward to seeing it go to outstanding MII students who will conquer the many challenges facing the use of polymers to serve future societal needs.”

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