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Tuskegee University awarded $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation

January 20, 2022

Drs. Rangari, Jeelani, Zainuddin, Abebe, and Qazi
(L to R): Drs. Vijay Rangari (PI), Co-PIs: Drs. Jeelani, Zainuddin, Abebe, and Qazi

Contact: Kawana McGough, Office of Communications, Public Relations and Marketing

Tuskegee University was awarded a five-year $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to educate the next generation of STEM graduates in sustainable packaging materials. This National Science Foundation Research Traineeship (NRT) award to Tuskegee University will establish a multidisciplinary traineeship in sustainable nanobiomaterials. This project is a partnership between three doctoral programs to develop innovative sustainable biomaterials for biodegradable packaging systems, including biomedical and food packaging. The project anticipates training 40 graduate-level students: including ten from the master's program and 30 from the doctoral program within the Materials Science and Engineering, Integrative Biosciences, and Integrative Pathobiology Department.

Dr. Vijaya Rangari, Department of Materials Science and Engineering professor and principal investigator of the grant, says that the current generation packaging materials are made of polymer composites derived from petroleum sources.

"These materials are not degradable, and either end up in landfills or are incinerated, releasing toxic gases. Factors such as greater environmental awareness, societal concerns, and the depletion of petrochemical resources collectively drive a desire to develop new materials and products based on plant fibers and degradable biopolymers.," explained Rangari.

The trainees will research the following fields: synthesis of calcium and silica-based nanoparticles from waste resources such as bone ash, fish scales, egg, and seashells. Antimicrobial functionalization of nanoparticles and short plant fibers using green synthesis methods. In addition, students will learn about the structural, morphological, and spectral characterization of as-prepared nanoparticles, fabrication of antimicrobial polymer packaging films using polymer blow films, 3D printing, and solution casting. The project will also support the study of nanomechanical, structural, morphological, and thermal characterization of as-prepared polymer composite films and antimicrobial inhibition, product design, prototyping, biodegradability, and commercial feasibility studies. The knowledge and training gained by the trainees will eventually result in modern design and manufacturing methodologies.

"Through this grant, our graduates will help bring much-needed diversity to the nation's advanced technology workforce. It is also anticipated that the knowledge gained by the students through their involvement in new research areas developed through this grant will eventually result in modern design and manufacturing methodologies that may well lead to patentable processes for the production of biodegradable packaging polymer composites for various applications in food and biomedical industries," he continued.

The Tuskegee NRT effort will produce many minority graduates, including a considerable number of women with Ph.D. degrees in STEM. An area of focus for the traineeship includes faculty support and training to mentor the trainees and provides trainees with opportunities to mentor. These graduates will become excellent role models for many young students and help bring much-needed diversity to the nation's advanced technological workforce in Sustainable Nanobiomaterials.

"This grant will allow Tuskegee University to increase the number of African American PhDs significantly in Materials Science and Engineering and maintain its lead in this effort," said Dr. Shaik Jeelani, vice president for research and dean of Tuskegee's Graduate School, and research team member.

The grant's involvement also includes Dr. Shaik Zainuddin, associate professor, Department of Materials Science and Engineering; Dr. Woubit Abebe, professor in the Department of Pathobiology; Dr. Desmond Mortley, Research Professor, Plant and Soil Sciences; Dr. Byungjin Min, associate professor of Food and Nutritional Sciences, Dr. Maria Calhoun, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Dr. Temesgen Samuel, associate dean for Research and Advanced Studies, in the College of Vet Med, and PD, Center for Biomedical Research/RCMI.