Research Magazine- Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science - The University of Texas at Dallas

An Ethos of Excitement for Polymer Science Applications

An Ethos of Excitement for Polymer Science Applications

Sydney Sherman conducts research as an undergraduate student in the Advanced Polymer Research Lab.

For researchers and students studying polymer science, the Advanced Polymer Research Lab (APRL) has an irresistible energy.

“It’s definitely exciting keeping up with the research,” said Sydney Sherman, bioengineering senior, Eugene McDermott Scholar and recent Goldwater Scholarship recipient. “There are plenty of ways to get involved in the lab and try new things. I’ve had the opportunity to do more than a typical undergraduate would in terms of being directly involved in research and grant writing. The lab is really moving forward.”

Led by Dr. Walter Voit BS’05, MS’06, the APRL caught Sherman’s attention at an Led by Dr. Walter Voit BS’05, MS’06, the APRL caught Sherman’s attention at an a bioengineering PhD student who realized his own interest in biomedical applications research after learning more about APRL’s range of activities.

“I met Dr. Voit when I was an undergraduate from Mexico,” said Garcia-Sandoval. “I participated in an international summer research program, and I found a whole new world of opportunities. After that, I knew I wanted to earn my PhD and pursue research.”

Voit, a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and Mechanical Engineering, directs the APRL at the Jonsson School. The interdisciplinary lab explores problems in polymer science and engineering, including shape-memory polymers.

Shape-memory polymers are self-adjusting, smart materials in which shape changes can be accurately controlled at specific temperatures. They are well-suited for biomedical applications because they can adapt to the human body’s environment.

Lab researchers have successfully developed innovations such as an ultra-comfortable earpiece and smart prosthetic. While the lab explores myriad projects, there’s one common goal: to impact society.

“These big, complex projects require a talented team with multiple, diverse skill sets,” Voit said. “Our collaborative, high-powered ecosystem of discussion and innovation is what breeds excellence.”

IMPLANTED DEVICES AND PROSTHETICS

Voit, himself one of the inaugural class of Eugene McDermott Scholars at UT Dallas, has worked with researchers throughout his tenure on devices designed to work within the human body.

The research team initially built a series of electronic devices that become soft and can grip surfaces such as large tissues, nerves and blood vessels. The research, featured in Advanced Materials, demonstrates implanted transistors that change shape while maintaining their electronic properties.

Dr. Walter Voit (center) works with Aldo Garcia-Sandoval (right) and others in the Advanced Polymer Research Lab.

“In our device design, we are approaching the size and stiff ness of precision biologic structures, but have a long way to go to match nature’s amazing complexity,” said Voit, who is also a member of the Texas Biomedical Device Center, which is housed at UT Dallas.

Garcia-Sandoval and Sherman are currently working on newer devices for spinal cord stimulation. The stimulation is used to treat trauma of the spinal cord and is focused on motor recovery. Previous devices constructed with more rigid materials tended to separate and cause long-term problems, but the shape- memory polymer is able to soft en and better attach to the spine, causing a reduced immune system response. The stimulation devices are currently being tested at Cornell University. Garcia-Sandoval and his team published an article on the research last year in the Journal of Neural Engineering.

Garcia-Sandoval, a PhD student, and other researchers use a microscope to manipulate the miniature, transparent medical devices.

E-WHISKERS AND ELECTRONIC SKIN

More recently, lab researchers have developed shape-memory polymers to create electronic e-whiskers, devices that mimic the properties of natural animal whiskers. Voit and his team also described this project in Advanced Materials.

“We’ve created some of the highest density e-whiskers to date,” Voit said. “If you drag many sensors together, they can measure properties including force, pressure, proximity, temperature and topography. As they brush up against surfaces, they mimic the sensing capabilities of human skin.”

Robotics and prosthetics could be two of the biggest applications for the e-whiskers.

PHOTOPOLYMERS FOR 3D PRINTED DEVICES

In addition to his University role, Voit is now founder and CEO of Adaptive3D Technologies Inc., which aims to identify niche markets for new development. In particular, the company has created a high-strain, 3D-printable photopolymer resin with properties similar to rubber.

With generous funding from Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health, as well as longtime partnerships such as Texas Instruments Inc., Voit has led Adaptive3D to develop photopolymers specifically for additive manufacturing, a process of constructing three-dimensional, layered materials.

Voit takes pride in bucking the stereotype of the researcher as a solitary lab rat. He relishes collaboration, from the Jonsson School to the private sector.

“We want to make a difference,” Voit said. “We don’t want our intellectual property to just sit there. Larger companies rely on small companies for new enthusiasm, new materials and new technology. That’s what we provide.”

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