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Plastics Engineering Prof. Awarded NSF CAREER Grant

Sobkowicz-Kline to Receive $400,000 Over 5 Years

UMass Lowell Image
Plastics engineering Asst. Prof. Meg Sobkowicz-Kline, left, with senior student Fran Palacios at the Mark and Elisia Saab Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has recently recognized Asst. Prof. Meg Sobkowicz-Kline in the Plastics Engineering Department with a prestigious faculty early career development prize, called the “CAREER” award. This highly competitive annual program selects the nation’s best young university faculty-scholars “who most effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their organization.”

Sobkowicz-Kline, who joined the University in 2011, is interested mainly in the convergence of materials and engineering for environmental sustainability.

“My students and I are interested in the creative role that polymer materials can play in solving critical problems facing our society and planet today,” she says. “Our research goals include improving the properties and expanding the applications of bio-based plastics. We are also interested in electroactive polymers for new energy applications, such as organic photovoltaics and flexible electronics, and we are focused on developing new, ‘greener’ manufacturing techniques.”

Sobkowicz-Kline will use the NSF award, worth $400,000 spread over a period of five years, to support her research entitled “High-Speed Reactive Extrusion for Stabilized and Toughened Renewable Polymer Blends and Copolymers.”

“The project aims to study the processing behavior and life cycle of renewable plastics made from the bioprocessing of agricultural sugars and byproducts,” she explains. “They have the potential to reduce the use of conventional plastics derived from fossil fuels.”

She says many of these bioplastics have limited physical properties and are difficult to process.

“By using cutting-edge, energy-saving processing techniques, we can potentially produce superior materials for demanding applications,” she says. “For example, we can develop reinforced recycled plastics for making durable goods as well as biodegradable materials with properties tailored for the medical device and packaging industries.”

A Strong Education Component

Sobkowicz-Kline hopes her NSF work will help inspire female students to pursue engineering careers.

“I plan to use my research as a catalyst for broadening participation of women in engineering by bringing student-run demonstrations of career options to local vocational and traditional high-school programs,” she says. “We’ll also have a multimedia informational public service website and a module on climate change and sustainability for freshman courses. Hopefully, these activities will establish mentoring relationships and early positive experiences, while improving science literacy and communication.”

A Maynard resident, Sobkowicz-Kline earned bachelor’s and doctorate degrees in chemical engineering from Columbia University and the Colorado School of Mines, respectively.