I met Michelle at the AVS conference a few months ago when I attended her presentation on plasma treatment of materials. I was very impressed with her results and her confidence while presenting her research. The quality of her research was no surprise to me, as she is studying with one of the most respected scientists in our field, Dr. Ellen Fisher.
After her talk, I spent a few minutes with her to discuss her work and was again impressed with her positive attitude and enthusiasm to advance her work. She recently co-authored a paper that was published in Plasma Process and Polymers: Hydrophilic Modification of Polysulfone Ultrafiltration Membranes by Low Temperature Water Vapor Plasma Treatment to Enhance Performance (doi: 10.1002/ppap.201500121).
Here is her interview to the Science and Engineering Café.
1. Describe your Ph.D. thesis topic.
Porous polymeric materials, such as scaffolds used in wound healing applications or filtration membranes used for water treatment, are prone to biofouling, caused by the adsorption of organic molecules or the attachment of bacteria. Biofouling severely limits the practical use of these materials in medical applications where bacterial proliferation causes infection and delayed healing. In water treatment applications, membrane fouling has environmental consequences because harsh cleaning agents are used to clean membranes and the need for frequent membrane replacement leads to material waste. My current research aims to create porous polymeric materials with improved compatibility in environmental and medical applications that also actively resist protein fouling or bacterial attachment and proliferation. To achieve this goal I use a dual approach:
(1) Plasma modification allows me to retain important bulk properties (e.g. porosity, pore size) and architecture of these polymeric materials while changing the surface properties (i.e. wettability) to passively resist biofouling to improve performance and lifetime.
(2) Antibacterial properties, optimized to selectively kill bacterial cells over mammalian cells, are introduced into the porous polymeric materials by methods including the incorporation of biocidal agents or drugs or the creation of an antibacterial coating via plasma polymerization.
An understanding of how surface properties and biocidal agents can work synergistically to reduce biofouling will ultimately increase the performance and lifetime of polymeric materials with unique architectures abundant in environmental and medical applications.
2. What made you choose plasma as your field of study?
Plasma science allows me to merge my fascination with materials science with my interest in analytical chemistry. I love that my research involves material development and fabrication combined with optimization of plasma modification processes, as well as the use of surface sensitive analytical techniques to investigate changes in material properties induced by plasma treatment. I love that researching plasmas allows me to answer the most fundamental of questions but also allows me to contribute to some truly amazing and innovative applications. Areas of that have been especially fascinating to me of late are advancements in water sterilization and the modification of biopolymers as well as advancements in plasma medicine applications (e.g. anti-cancer applications, wound healing, plasma sterilization).
3. You recently presented your research at the AVS conference. Was this your first conference talk and how did you prepare for it? Were you nervous?
I was a definitely nervous before my recent talk at the AVS conference in San Jose! It was not my first conference talk, but it was my first talk at a national AVS meeting. The most helpful preparation I did for the talk was to practice. Practicing a talk with friends and group members helps me most to be less nervous for a talk. I also found that giving a talk at the Regional AVS meeting and Surface Analysis symposium in Golden, CO and another talk at the national ACS meeting in Denver helped me prepare for the national AVS meeting.
4. Describe your favorite plasma experiment.
I have been working on a project where I am using an essential oil derived from eucalyptus as a plasma polymerization precursor. The resulting coating has been shown to significantly resist bacterial attachment and biofilm formation, so it shows great potential for use as an antibacterial coating on a range of materials from glass to polymeric materials like ultrafiltration membranes. I am especially excited about the experiments involved in this project because it is a unique and unexplored plasma deposition system. I also love that this project has allowed me to learn additional bacteria assays because these experiments allow me to explore in a hands-on way how the plasma modifications I perform directly impact the interactions occurring at the material-biomacromolecule interface.