New minor in polymers and soft matter offered this fall

Ivory Zhu
September 26, 2017

This article was originally featured in The Tech, MIT's oldest and largest newspaper.

A new minor in Polymers and Soft Matter (MPSM) will be offered starting this fall in response to “the increasing need for knowledge of chemistry in materials-related fields,” according to Professor Jeremiah Johnson, founder and current advisor of MPSM. 

Polymers and soft matter, critical components of existing and next-generation materials, are ubiquitous – examples range from plastics to rubber, from DNA to our own bodies, from paper plates to a block of wood.

While MPSM is new to undergraduate students, the study of polymers and soft matter is not new to the campus. The graduate Program in Polymers and Soft Matter (PPSM), an interdisciplinary program, which involves the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, the Department of Mechanical Engineering, the Department of Chemical Engineering, the Department of Biological Engineering, and the Department of Chemistry, has flourished at MIT since 1986, according to Johnson.

Only one week into MPSM’s existence, five students have already declared the minor. Johnson is satisfied with this number so far and expects it to grow further. According to Johnson, students are expected to graduate from MPSM with “a deep understanding of the interdisciplinary nature of polymer science and engineering, solid skills to address challenges in these areas, and a broader perspective of how fields fit together in the real world.”

At the annual PPSM faculty meeting in spring 2015, Johnson first proposed the idea of extending the opportunity of study to undergraduate students. Afterwards, with careful course planning, proposal drafting, and help and support from Jennifer Donath from the Committee on Curricula; Darrell Irvine, the current Head of PPSM; and Bob Cohen, the founder of PPSM in 1986, MPSM came into fruition.

Students pursuing the new minor are required to take four foundational subjects focusing on organic chemistry, polymer physics, and polymer engineering; a half-subject on ethical guidelines; and one elective or approved UROP experience. These classes, besides having to abide by the regulations for MIT minors, were selected because "their material either directly involves or could be readily applied to polymers.”

“I also included a required ethics course, simply because I believe that all students should be trained in ethical practices,” Johnson wrote in an email to The Tech.

Johnson also recognized the drive for innovation in the field of polymers and soft matter. “This topic is at the front edge of a range of several fields, which is why PPSM is so successful and why all five departments endorsed MPSM,” Johnson wrote, “We need even better polymers to enable new applications such as precision drug delivery systems, materials that can spontaneously heal, additive manufacturing with recyclable yet robust materials, energy conversion with flexible solar panels. We also need new ways to make polymers that do not rely on petroleum feedstocks. The future is extremely exciting.”

MPSM, spanning five departments, indicates the Department of Chemistry’s dedication to  interdisciplinary education. “Matter is made of chemicals, and cutting edge research in nearly every department at MIT requires some knowledge of the properties of chemicals,” Johnson wrote. In his own research, he always collaborates with people from other departments. For example, chemists can help engineers build new devices by making new molecules.

Johnson is confident that prosperous career paths await MPSM students: “I cannot tell you how many companies have expressed interest in hiring MIT students with knowledge at the interface of synthetic chemistry and polymer science. Students of this minor will have numerous job opportunities!”