The Charger Blog

Chemistry Professor Receives Prestigious Grant from the National Science Foundation

A grant for nearly a quarter of a million dollars will create exciting opportunities for Hao Sun, Ph.D., and his students in the laboratory as they conduct impactful research on polymers. They hope their work will address pressing global challenges such as plastic pollution and the depletion of petroleum resources.

September 11, 2023

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

The Sun research group in Buckman Hall. From left to right: Dr. Hao Sun; Hayat Khan ’25; Angelo Ritacco ’24, ’25 M.S.; and Tarek Ibrahim ’23 M.S., ’26 Ph.D.
The Sun research group in Buckman Hall. From left to right: Dr. Hao Sun; Hayat Khan ’25; Angelo Ritacco ’24, ’25 M.S.; and Tarek Ibrahim ’23 M.S., ’26 Ph.D.

For Tarek Ibrahim ’23 M.S., ’26 Ph.D., chemistry is more than something that interests him. He believes it is also a way to serve others – an opportunity give back to his community and to protect the planet. This drives him in the classroom and in the lab as he explores chemical reactions. He’s now taking part in important research with his mentor that, he hopes, will make a meaningful impact on people and the planet.

Ibrahim’s mentor, Hao Sun, Ph.D., recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation for nearly $250,000 that will support their work on biomass-derived degradable polymer materials. Ibrahim hopes this will play an important role in addressing the problem of plastic pollution.

“I think polymers are the future to solving the plastic pollution problem,” Ibrahim said. “Polymer science was a new discipline for me when I joined Dr. Sun’s team, and I have already gained a lot of experience in synthesizing and understanding polymer materials."

‘A great honor’

The first University professor to receive the prestigious Undergraduate New Investigator Grant from the American Chemical Society's Petroleum Research Fund, Dr. Sun draws inspiration for his research from the depletion of the petroleum resources that make up the majority of commercial plastics. In addressing this “global challenge,” he hopes to be part of the solution in finding alternative and more sustainable resources to produce polymer plastics.

“This NSF grant is a great honor and means a lot to me in terms of achieving my long-term research and educational goals,” said Dr. Sun, an assistant professor of chemistry. “Our University’s academic and research reputation is rapidly rising as more and more faculty members are receiving external grants from prestigious agencies. The continued success in securing external grants would not only enhance the overall research environment, but it also can help place the University in an even better position for attracting top students domestically and internationally.”

Student researchers in Dr. Sun’s lab. From left to right: Angelo Ritacco ’24, ’25 M.S.; Hayat Khan ’25; and Tarek Ibrahim ’23 M.S., ’26 Ph.D.
Student researchers in Dr. Sun’s lab. From left to right: Angelo Ritacco ’24, ’25 M.S.; Hayat Khan ’25; and Tarek Ibrahim ’23 M.S., ’26 Ph.D.
‘Establishing a nationally recognized research program’

Founder of the University's state-of-the-art Advanced Polymer Research Lab, Dr. Sun hopes the team’s work on designing and synthesizing biomass-derived depolymerizable and degradable polymer materials will yield sustainable options for the future. They have three objectives. The researchers hope to develop depolymerizable polymers, meaning they can be brought back to their original small molecule building blocks. They also will work to synthesize acid-degradable polymers from biomass-derived monomers, which are molecules that can be bonded to form polymers. Lastly, they will investigate the thermomechanical properties of those new materials to evaluate their potential for use in industrial applications.

Dr. Sun sees potential answers in biomass resources, a more abundant and greener alternative to what goes into “traditional” plastics. Biomass feedstocks such as polysaccharides – carbohydrates – can, he says, be converted to monomers that can then be used to generate biomass-derived polymer materials. Because they would be degradable, his proposed biomass-derived polymers would be more environmentally friendly than commonly used petroleum-based plastics such as polyethylene.

“The funded project aligns very well with my long-term research goals in establishing a nationally recognized research program in the field of sustainable polymer materials,” said Dr. Sun. “Over the next couple of years, the award will support my research group to generate preliminary data and research publications that will facilitate future submissions of new proposals to other NSF programs.”

‘The definition of Dr. Sun’s research’

A portion of the funding will go toward supporting positions for student researchers, including graduate and undergraduate students. Many of these students have already been conducting impactful research under Dr. Sun’s mentorship, and this grant will create new opportunities for them to learn and apply their skills.

Hayat Khan ’25 created a nanoparticle consisting of a glycogen core with a polydopamine covering as part of his Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) project with Dr. Sun. He hopes to publish an academic paper based on their work. He’s also excited about the new opportunities the grant will create for him and for his fellow Chargers in the laboratory.

“The NSF supports ‘high-risk, high pay-off’ projects that may seem like science fiction today, but that the public will take for granted tomorrow,” said Khan, a chemistry major. “This statement is the definition of Dr. Sun’s research. Being able to receive a prestigious grant from the NSF confirms the credibility of Dr. Sun’s promising research that will potentially save many lives in the future.”

‘This is a great opportunity for me’

Katie Durkee ’24 M.S. is no stranger to working with polymers in the laboratory under Dr. Sun’s mentorship. Awarded a graduate research grant from the NASA Connecticut Space Grant Consortium (CTSGC), Durkee is exploring generating self-healing polymers from biomass resources. She’s excited about the opportunities she’ll have this semester thanks to Dr. Sun’s support, as well as that of this critical grant.

“Research grants are important because they help to support and fund research that can be beneficial to society,” said Durkee, a candidate in the University’s M.S. in Chemistry program. “Without grants, important research such as Dr. Sun’s may not occur. Dr. Sun really cares about his students, and he is always striving to help us learn and grow in any way possible. Dr. Sun is always looking to help students follow their passions and wants them to truly enjoy their experience.”

Angelo Ritacco ’24, ’25 M.S. worked with Dr. Sun throughout this past summer, focusing on sustainable and environmentally friendly polymers. He’s excited to continue his work this fall, when he will assist Dr. Sun and Ibrahim in the laboratory and with writing reports. Most of all, he’s excited to gain hands-on experience in the lab.

“This is a great opportunity for me, as it helps me better understand the field of laboratory research and exposes me to similar conditions that I might experience in the real-world,” said Ritacco, a forensic science major. “Dr. Sun is an extraordinary professor and mentor, and I am able to learn a great amount of useful information through him. Grants such as this one help smaller groups and labs to conduct potentially life-changing research without having to worry about a lack of resources.”

‘This will bring us closer to achieving significant results’

Committed to creating opportunities for his students, Dr. Sun’s goal is to build an integrated research-education platform to enhance their experience. He’s eager to continue to offer them hands-on research experience using cutting-edge equipment in his lab, and he’s grateful that this grant will create more opportunities for them.

For Ibrahim, the opportunities he had as a graduate student were so valuable that he wanted more. He decided to pursue his doctorate under Dr. Sun’s mentorship. He’s excited for the opportunities he’s sure to have this academic year – his first as a doctoral candidate. He hopes the work he, his mentor, and his fellow researchers do in the lab will yield promising results that can make a real difference.

“Receiving the National Science Foundation grant will provide us with opportunities and eliminate many limitations, enabling us to extend and advance our study,” Ibrahim said. “This will bring us closer to achieving significant results in our field, benefiting the entire community.”