In recognition of their work in polymer science, a Virginia Tech faculty member and graduate student both accepted awards from the American Chemical Society on April 4.
Kevin Edgar, professor of biomaterials and bioprocessing in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment, received the Anselme Payen Award from the Cellulose and Renewable Materials Division of the American Chemical Society. The award honors outstanding professional contributions to the science and technology of cellulose and other polysaccharides.
Edgar, who has worked in the field of cellulose research for almost 35 years, began his career in the chemistry division of Eastman Kodak, which later became the Eastman Chemical Company. He joined the Virginia Tech faculty in 2007.
“I got into working with polysaccharides at Eastman because that’s what they needed at the time, but the more I learned about it, the more fascinating it became,” he said.
Edgar is particularly interested in working with polysaccharides because they are renewable, sustainable, biodegradable materials that have a wide variety of applications. Polysaccharides are natural chains of sugars that can be modified in numerous ways to achieve different results.
Cellulose, which is a long chain of glucose links, is perhaps the most common polysaccharide used today; its various forms can be found in everyday products from toothbrushes to laundry detergent.
Currently, Edgar is working to discover new ways to use cellulose and other natural polysaccharides in drug formulation and delivery. Often, when a person takes oral medication, most of the drug fails to dissolve and thus never enters the bloodstream, preventing the medication from fully achieving its intended purpose.
Edgar explained that using the right polysaccharides to help deliver the entire drug dose to the part of the body where it is needed could make medications more effective, less toxic, and less expensive for patients.
“We’re trying to figure out how to use polysaccharides to make drugs work better. I’m hopeful that we’re not too far away in getting this to patients,” he said. “We’ve got pharmaceutical companies interested in this work, and we’ve made quite a bit of progress in the past 10 years.”
Edgar explained that much of that progress comes from the innovation of students like Yifan Dong, of Yuncheng, Shanxi Province, China, a doctoral candidate in polymer chemistry in the College of Science who works with Edgar’s research group.
Dong, who will graduate in May and begin work with the Dow Chemical Company in Freeport, Texas, received the Graduate Student Award from the American Chemical Society’s Cellulose and Renewable Materials Division. This prestigious international award is given to only one student worldwide each year.
“Yifan is highly deserving of this award,” said Edgar, who nominated her. “She’s incredibly diligent and creative, and she’s clearly a leader in the lab. Good things happen because of people like her.”
For her part, Dong, who earned a bachelor’s of science in material chemistry from the Beijing Institute of Technology in Beijing, China, has taken great pride in working with Edgar over the past four years. She recalled meeting him during an interview session with chemistry faculty during her first year at Virginia Tech.
“He was one of my favorites,” she said. “His research is very interesting to me, and you could tell he was passionate about polymer science. We made a deal — I told him he was probably my top choice for an advisor, and he said I was one of his top options, too.”
Dong, who has always had an interest in chemistry, was attracted to the real-world applications of polymer science. Like Edgar, her research focuses on developing new ways to convert polysaccharides, like cellulose from wood and crops, into new materials to improve the ability of drugs that are too poorly soluble in water to be absorbed completely into the body.
“Developing effective drug delivery systems is really important, and it’s exciting to see what you’re doing in the lab being applied in real life,” she said.
Dong is the fourth student from Edgar’s group to receive this award since 2011.
“Having four students win this award is awesome. It speaks to how lucky I’ve been with the students who chose to join my group,” Edgar said. “Virginia Tech is really strong in the world of polysaccharides, so we attract great students. Getting to work with young people and then seeing them out in the world doing well is pretty wonderful.”
Edgar has directed the Virginia Tech Bio-based Materials Center, served as associate director for research of the Virginia Tech Macromolecules Innovation Institute, led the renewable materials thrust of the Virginia Tech Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, is active in the Fralin Life Science Institute, and served on numerous committees with the American Chemical Society.
He received his bachelor of science in chemistry from Bucknell University and his doctorate in organic chemistry from Duke University.