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Communication Skills Help Polymer Researcher
Convey Science Concepts
February 14, 2000

Tom Seery perches himself precariously on the side of a five-gallon drum to show his freshman chemistry class the power of atmospheric pressure.

"Ooooooh, is he going to fall?" shouts a student. A lot more oooohs and ahhhs follow.

Spotlight on New Faculty

"I find that students pay the most attention when the professor either blows something up or places himself at risk," says Seery with a chuckle. In his next class, he adds, he may sing the table of elements to the students.

An assistant professor of chemistry in the Institute of Materials Science, Seery has recently received an NSF faculty early career development award for his polymer research. He hopes to use part of that grant to develop a course for students focusing on science demonstrations in teaching chemistry. The course would be geared toward students interested in science education and chemistry majors who want to enhance their communication skills.

Mere words, tables and graphs can be dry and boring, Seery says: "In today's job market, people who can present themselves with a demonstration of their ideas that move or involve the audience have an advantage over people reading off their slides."

When he is not teaching or planning his next demonstration, Seery may be found in his lab pondering the length of a polymer chain. His work focuses on creating new polymer compositions that will help coatings stick to surfaces. Polymers are large molecules connected with very strong bonds so that when they stretch they can give a little, but can also snap back into the conformation that they were in before, notes Seery.

"Whether it's as common as paint sticking to your walls or as precise as making a special anti-reflective coating on your glasses, coatings need to stick and not fall off," Seery says.

His research focuses on new ways of making strong bonds across the interface with unlike substances.

"We're trying to form a surface that's coated with polymers that has as many chemical bonds as possible between the polymer and the hard surface that you're trying to connect," he says. Polymers are typically soft materials compared to steel, rock or glass, and it's difficult to marry the two: "You have to have a lot of chemical bonds across that interface. Otherwise, when you start bending them, the flexible part will delaminate."

Seery is growing polymers directly from the surfaces that he wants to bond. He likens the process to "planting seeds and growing material." For instance, a glass surface is prepared by creating a chemical reaction among small molecules that can react over the entire surface. These molecules have little seed groups. From these seed groups, monomers are added and a polymer chain-link is created.

"The approach we're taking is an improvement over other methods because we're only growing things on the surface. We don't grow anything in the solution at the same time," Seery says. What is also beneficial, he notes, is that the catalysts being used allow the polymers to be grown under conditions that are more tolerant of air and water.

Seery's research can be applied to fiberglass sporting goods such as surfboards and skis, as well as high-tech materials, including high voltage electrical cable insulation and biosensors that detect molecules in the bloodstream.

Seery, who joined the UConn faculty in 1996, holds a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Harvard University and a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California.

Sherry Fisher