April 18, 2019  

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Southern Miss Professor Receives National Science Foundation Award

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Southern Miss polymer Professor Derek Patton is leading a program funded by a National Science Foundation award to develop the next generation of materials researchers. (Submitted photo)

A graduate education training project spearheaded by polymer Professor Derek Patton has placed The University of Southern Mississippi among an elite group of awardees in the inaugural National Science Foundation Research Traineeship Program.

Patton, associate professor in the School of Polymers and High Performance Materials, served as the principal investigator on a collaborative proposal titled: “NRT: Training Next-Generation Scientists with Experimental, Theoretical, and Computational Competencies for Complex Interfaces (INTERFACE).” The award is just above $2.8 million, covering five years.

Patton explains that the Southern Miss project is designed to train the next generation of materials researchers through interdisciplinary data-driven research, education, and professional development geared to equip graduate with the theoretical, computational, and experimental skills needed to address the grand challenges of the 21st Century.

“Our vision is to immerse students in a new model of graduate training that combines theory with experiment, employs a common vocabulary, and develops expertise in both computational and experimental techniques,” said Patton. “Our goal is to provide students with the skills needed in industrial, academic, and national labs to drive American competitiveness and enable advanced materials innovation.”

The new NSF graduate education initiative is designed to encourage the development of potentially transformative models for science, technology, education, and math (STEM) graduate training. Seven other U.S. universities were chosen for this pilot program, including: University of California, Berkeley; Colorado State University; Penn State University; Northwestern University; Syracuse University, and University of Maryland College Park.

Dr. Jeff Wiggins, director of the School of Polymers and High Performance Materials at Southern Miss, notes that the NRT award speaks directly to the confidence the National Science Foundation has in Patton as principal investigator, but also as a future leader in the polymer field.

“Placing USM in the company of other research universities such as Northwestern, Syracuse, UC Berkley and the others included for this year’s awards is an outstanding accomplishment,” said Wiggins. “By reviewing Derek’s selection of co-PIs on this project, it is clear to me that he is providing broad support to the College and University which will lead to heightened educational opportunities for many students and programs.”

The Co-PIs on the Southern Miss proposal include: Dr. Sarah Morgan, associate professor of Polymers and Engineering; Dr. Ras Pandey, professor of Physics; and Dr. Julie Cwikla, director of Creativity & Innovation in STEM office of the Vice President for Research. The proposal was also developed with strong contributions from faculty participants Dr. Gopinath Subramanian (assistant professor of Polymer Science and Engineering), Dr. Song Guo (assistant professor of Chemistry & Biochemistry), and Dr. Vijay Rangachari (associate professor of Chemistry & Biochemistry).

Patton points out that the NRT program will provide opportunities to build collaborative research efforts between faculty in the School of Polymers, Chemistry, Physics, and Computer Science that are sure to evolve from the interdisciplinary dissertation committees and joint advertisement models built in the Southern Miss initiative.

The program will feature a series of professional development workshops in which trainees will receive extensive training in professional skills such as project management, problem solving, conflict resolution, high performance teamwork, business etiquette, research ethics, and oral and written communication.

“USM will see approximately 40 NRT trainees pass through this program over the next five years,” said Patton. “During that time they will participate in internship opportunities designed for exposure to multiple career paths in academia, industry, national labs, and government policy. This NRT program should provide an excellent opportunity to recruit high quality students into our graduate program.”