The Charger Blog

Chemistry Professor Earns Prestigious Grant to Support Polymer Research

Hao Sun, Ph.D., recently became the first University of New Haven professor to receive the highly competitive Undergraduate New Investigator Grant from the American Chemical Society's Petroleum Research Fund. He looks forward to the hands-on opportunities the award will create for him to work with his students as they explore solutions to the problem of plastic pollution.

December 1, 2022

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Dr. Sun with students
Dr. Sun is discussing the project with students. From left to right: Tarek Ibrahim '23 M.S., Dr. Hao Sun, Kyle Rocha '24 M.S., and Farbod Shirinichi '23 M.S.

Hao Sun, Ph.D., is concerned about the impact that commercial plastics are having on the health of people and the environment. It's an important focus of his research – and one that is getting noticed. He recently earned a prestigious Undergraduate New Investigator (UNI) Grant from the American Chemical Society's Petroleum Research Fund (ACS PRF) – the first such grant the University has received.

Hao Sun, Ph.D.
Hao Sun, Ph.D.

For Dr. Sun, founder of the University's state-of-the-art Advanced Polymer Research Lab, the award is his first external grant since joining the University faculty last year. The competitive grant will support his research group over the next two academic years as they endeavor to develop the next generation of polymer materials that are chemically recyclable and still have mechanical and thermal properties similar to current commercial polymers. The hope is to design new polymer structures that can easily depolymerize back into their original monomers – small molecule building blocks – that can then be reused to make a new polymer.

"The support will not only enable my research group to provide compelling STEM education experiences for our students, but it also can help my group generate preliminary data for future external funding opportunities, such as NSF-CAREER awards and Department of Energy grants," said Dr. Sun, an assistant professor of chemistry. "Together with the University's other recent successes in securing grants from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, this suggests the research activity at the University is rapidly growing and receiving increasing recognition from several high-impact funding agencies across the nation."

'The integration of research and education'

The $55,000 award will support Dr. Sun's project, "Transformation of Non-Depolymerizable Poly(oxanorbornene)s to Depolymerizable Polyolefins via Ring-Opening of Backbone Cyclic Ethers" over two years. It will also create new opportunities each year for at least five students to gain hands-on research experience. They will learn how to analyze and process data, prepare research presentations, and write research papers. The grant will also enable students to attend national conferences and present their findings.

"The student-engaged research in my lab aims to prepare the next generation of scientists and engineers for their future careers in the industry or to attend graduate school," said Dr. Sun. "The grant will significantly enhance the educational experience for our students through the integration of research and education, providing them with valuable hands-on experience in the most cutting-edge research fields related to their future careers."

'Unlimited potential for successful careers'
Mia Rodriguez '24
Mia Rodriguez '24 in the lab.

The grant will create opportunities for students such as Mia Rodriguez '24, a chemistry major, who will begin work on the project during the spring semester. Rodriguez, who was a member of the University's Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program last summer, hopes to continue her work with Dr. Sun exploring the depolymerization of polymer materials to mitigate plastic pollution.

"The project will most definitely tie into my SURF research, since it will be a continuation of it," said Rodriguez. "I hope to learn more about polymers. I would also enjoy learning how Dr. Sun works in a lab as well as how I work in a lab. It is a good experience for my future career path, since I wish to go to vet school for my master's degree, and lab work will be a big part of that."

Students in the lab
Students perform the synthesis and characterization of polymer materials. From left to right: Farbod Shirinichi '23 M.S., Tarek Ibrahim '23 M.S., and Kyle Rocha '24 M.S.

Rodriguez, Farbod Shirinichi '23 M.S., Tarek Ibrahim'23 M.S., and Dr. Sun recently published their research on biomolecule-polymer nanoparticles in the Journal of Polymer Science. Dr. Sun, who was recognized by the Polymeric Materials: Science & Engineering division of the American Chemical Society last year, is excited about the opportunities the grant will continue to create for student research and mentorship. He hopes that, together, he and his students can generate a new class of chemically recyclable polymer materials that could replace the current commercial plastics on the market.

"I hope this project will make noticeable impacts on student education and on our society," he said. "This project will prepare young scientists and engineers with a problem-solving mindset and essential skills to work on polymer materials in their careers. I am very impressed by the creativity, teamwork spirit, and hard-working nature of our students. I have no doubt they hold unlimited potential for successful careers in the near future."