October 23, 2014  

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Polymer Professor Wins Prestigious National Science Foundation Grant

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Dr. Derek Patton displays a silicon wafer used for model surface studies at the Shelby Freland Thames Polymer Science Research Center at The University of Southern Mississippi. (Office of University Communications photo by Van Arnold)

Much to his amazement, University of Southern Mississippi professor Derek Patton discovered that even the longest of shots can find the intended bulls-eye where higher education is concerned.

Patton, 33, assistant professor in the School of Polymers and High Performance Materials, learned recently that he had been awarded a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER grant designed to recognize outstanding work by junior faculty across the country.

“The competition for the CAREER is fierce. It really is a long shot when you apply for one of these grants, “said Patton, who snared the award on his first try. “The truth is, it really hasn’t sunk in yet that I was awarded one of the CAREER grants. This is a major goal for young faculty members everywhere and I am certainly grateful to be a recipient of this award.”

Patton’s NSF CAREER award of $500,000 will be administered in $100,000 increments spread out over five years. The award will be renewed each year contingent upon availability of funds and the scientific progress of the project.

The NSF CAREER program offers these coveted awards in support of the early career-development activities of those teacher/scholars who most effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their organization. Patton’s submitted his application under the project title: “Functional Polymer Surfaces and Networks via Thiol-Click Chemistry.”

From a research standpoint, Patton plans to use the grant to develop strategies for the fabrication of multifunctional polymer surfaces and hybrid polymer networks using highly efficient, orthogonal chemistries. Or, as Patton explains, “surfaces mediate the interaction of a material with the surrounding environment and dictate properties such as biocompatibility and corrosion resistance. We are using century-old chemistry to modify the surface properties of polymeric materials in a controlled and modular fashion.”

In the area of educational outreach, Patton seeks to implement an integrated, discovery-driven education platform that promotes polymer science and diversity in grades kindergarten through graduate school. And he hopes to accomplish this objective by educating the teachers first.

“The best way to reach the largest number of school children is through their respective teachers,” said Patton. “Part of the grant will be used to initiate a professional development outreach program aimed at providing teachers (grades 3-5) with specific training in scientific inquiry, science content and with hands-on science kits that can be fully aligned and integrated with Mississippi state curriculum requirements

“With limited resources, this ‘train-to-train’ approach provides the highest potential to impact greater numbers of elementary students in the Hattiesburg area.”

Patton notes that the ultimate goal of his grant project is to provide a large socio-economic impact by (1) encouraging a diverse population of students to pursue careers in scientific disciplines and (2) providing the fundamental understanding of polymer surface engineering and networks necessary to establish the shortest paths between scientific discovery and exploratory applications.

An Attalla, Ala., native, Patton earned his bachelor of science in chemistry from Jacksonville State University in 2000; his master of science in chemistry from the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2002 and his doctorate in chemistry from the University of Houston in 2006. He joined the faculty at Southern Miss in 2008.

“We are obviously delighted that Dr. Patton has received this prestigious award,” said Dr. Denis Wiesenburg, vice president of research at Southern Miss. “A CAREER award from NSF means the scientific community believes this is a young faculty member who has the potential to become a national leader in integrating research and teaching. We agree.”

Patton joins a list of colleagues at Southern Miss who also received NSF CAREER grants recently. Those include Dr. Doug Masterson, associate professor and associate chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry; Dr. Paige Phillips, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry; Dr. Steve Stevenson, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry; Dr. Wujian Miao, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Dr.Julie Cwikla, assistant professor in mathematics education at Southern Miss Gulf Coast.

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