Polymer science

2024 ACS Macro Letters/Biomacromolecules/Macromolecules Young Investigator Award Winners

Nathan Quinn
  • 8 min read

Get to know this year's winners—Brett Fors and Sarah Perry—and browse some of their recently published research in ACS journals.

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The ACS journals ACS Macro Letters, Biomacromolecules, and Macromolecules in partnership with the Division of Polymer Chemistry are proud to announce the selection of Brett Fors of Cornell University, United States, and Sarah Perry of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, United States, as the winners of the 2024 ACS Macro Letters/Biomacromolecules/Macromolecules Young Investigator Award.

This award recognizes two outstanding early career investigators conducting research in any area of fundamental polymer or biopolymer science. Professors Fors and Perry will be honored during an award symposium at ACS Fall 2024 in Denver, from August 18-22.

Learn more about each of the winners below.

Professor Brett P. Fors

Headshot of Brett P. Fors
Winner, 2024 ACS Macro Letters/Biomacromolecules/Macromolecules Young Investigator Award

Prof. Fors was born in Polson, Montana and carried out his undergraduate studies in chemistry at Montana State University (B.S., 2006). He went on to do his Ph.D. (2011) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with Professor Stephen L. Buchwald. After his doctoral studies he became an Elings Fellow at the University of California, Santa Barbara working with Professor Craig J. Hawker. In 2014 he joined the faculty at Cornell University as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. In 2019 he was promoted to Associate Professor and in 2023 he was promoted to Professor.

Prof. Fors was selected for this award due to his creative contributions to externally controllable polymerization catalysts, controlling molar mass distribution of polymers, and new approaches to polymer recycling. Read our interview with Prof. Fors below.

What does this award mean to you?

It is an honor to receive the ACS Macro Letters/Biomacromolecules/Macromolecules Young Investigator Award. This award is a recognition of all of the hard work and creativity of my coworkers and collaborators, that I have had the opportunity to work with. I have been very lucky throughout my career to work with talented individuals.

How would you describe your research to someone outside your field?

Our group develops synthetic methods to precisely control polymer structure to make next-generation materials.

What do you think is the biggest challenge currently in your area of research?

In polymer chemistry, multiple grand challenges must be addressed and it is hard to identify a single one as the biggest. However, one challenge that I am particularly interested in is the development of sustainable and recyclable polymeric materials.

What is next in your research?

Recently my group has been focusing on developing user-friendly polymerizations that can be routinely used by individuals who are not experts in synthetic polymer methods. We hope to make very powerful chemical processes that polymer chemists use regularly, more accessible to the rest of the scientific community.

What would your advice be to someone just starting out in the field?

My advice to anyone starting out is to find a research area that interests you and enjoy the experience.

Professor Sarah Perry

Headshot of Sarah Perry
Winner, 2024 ACS Macro Letters/Biomacromolecules/Macromolecules Young Investigator Award

Prof. Perry earned her Ph.D. in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, completed postdoctoral training first in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of California Berkeley, followed by a move to the University of Chicago Institute for Molecular Engineering (now the Pritzker School for Molecular Engineering). She is currently an Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She also is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Polymer Science & Engineering, and a member of the Institute for Applied Life Sciences.

Prof. Perry was selected for this award due to her important and insightful contributions to the field of polyelectrolyte self-assembly and the incorporation of proteins into these assemblies. Read our interview with Prof. Perry below.

What does this award mean to you?

It is an honor to win this award. I have really enjoyed the chance to work with awesome collaborators to help push this research forward. Interest in polyelectrolyte complexation was on the upswing when I started as faculty, and it has been amazing to be a part of that rise and to have that work be recognized.

How would you describe your research to someone outside your field?

My group works on self-assembling materials. We are interested in understanding how electrostatic interactions (i.e., polyelectrolyte complexation) can be used to make and tune materials, and there is a huge range of interesting questions that we can pursue.

On the one hand, the types of charge-driven polymeric assemblies that we study have strong parallels to ‘membraneless organelles’ in living systems. Here, attractive associations between intrinsically disordered proteins and RNA drive the formation of liquid ‘biomolecular condensates’ that can selectively uptake specific proteins, RNA, and other molecules. While we are not studying the actual biology of these materials, we are trying to understand how polymer sequence and chemistry can affect assembly and the incorporation of guest proteins. We are also interested in understanding how these materials can modulate the stability and/or activity of incorporated guest proteins to try and address challenges in the temperature sensitivity of vaccines.

Beyond this bioinspired work, my group is also working to understand how to understand how to process polyelectrolyte complexes into physical materials. One great example of this is work that my group did in collaboration with Prof. Jessica Schiffman at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her group are experts in electrospinning to create nanofibers, and we worked together to demonstrate electrospinning of polyelectrolyte complexes. Researchers had tried to electrospin polyelectrolyte complexes before but had always needed to resort to strategies like co-spinning the solutions of oppositely charged polymers to prevent them from aggregating in the needle, or using a pH change to neutralize one polymer and prevent complexation during spinning and then treat the fibers after spinning to enable complex formation. Instead, we were able to leverage our understanding of how salt can be used to tune the liquid vs. solid state of polyelectrolyte complexes to enable direct spinning of the materials.

We have also been working more recently to understand how changing parameters like the length of polymers, charge density, or adding in various other chemistries affects the strength, brittleness, and temperature sensitivity of polyelectrolyte complexes. For example, seven years ago two undergraduate students in my lab had the idea of using polyelectrolyte complexation to create organic solvent-free nail polish. They made beautiful examples by incorporating food dye into their formulations. However, the ultimate material was so brittle that it would just flake off when touched. In the intervening time we have tested out a range of different polymers and polymer properties and can now do the same demonstration and create a very robust coating.

What do you think is the biggest challenge currently in your area of research?

I think a big challenge will be truly understanding the importance of sequence and complexity on self-assembly. If we look to biology for inspiration, proteins are built from sequences of at least 20 distinct building blocks. The tools that we have in polymer physics are not currently set up to understand that level of detail. However, it is also unclear whether we truly have to have perfect sequence control to achieve a desired function, or if more of an ensemble behavior is sufficient. In reality, I think that the answer depends on what you are trying to achieve, but understanding these nuances in terms of both assembly and the resulting properties of the material will be very exciting.

What is next in your research?

We continue to push forward to understand how to make and use polyelectrolyte complex materials. We are thinking about how patterns of charge and other chemistries affects the incorporation of proteins and viruses into our materials, and how we can leverage this knowledge to improve formulation strategies for products like therapeutics, biocatalysts, and sensors. We are also very interested to look more into how physical processing can affect the properties of our materials. This could have implications for their mechanical performance, and for their recyclability.

What would your advice be to someone just starting out in the field?

I was first introduced to polymer research as a postdoc, and despite knowing intellectually that my group and I are doing great research there is always this niggling sense of impostor syndrome because I did not have the same background and formal training as most of my colleagues. That feeling is okay. Find a topic that you are excited about. Work with great colleagues who support you. You do not have to be an expert in 100% of everything that you do, and having conversations with people who are experts in other topics creates opportunities because together you may identify something unique that might have been missed otherwise.

Learn About Last Year's Winners

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