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The Warsaw Voice » Other » July 9, 2008
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Homeward Bound
July 9, 2008   
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Many young scientists have left Poland on scholarships and decided to stay abroad-attracted by better pay and better conditions of work and research. But today some of these people are coming back.

In 2006, the Foundation for Polish Science (FNP) launched its Powroty/Homing program to encourage young researchers with Ph.D. degrees to return to Poland. The program is aimed at researchers who obtained their doctorates no more than four years ago and have worked abroad for some time. Under the program, the best researchers, selected through a competition, receive two-year grants (zl.24,000 annually at the moment) and cash (zl.40,000 annually) to pursue their research programs and work with host research centers abroad.

Among last year's grant holders was Joanna Pietrasik, Ph.D., of the Technical University of Łódź's Institute of Polymer and Dye Technology, who has returned from a fellowship in the United States and is conducting research into polymer composite materials called hybrid materials.

"I have chosen polymers because I knew that this is something that will always be needed and will be developing," Pietrasik says. In 2003, after she defended her Ph.D. thesis, Pietrasik applied to the Kościuszko Foundation and was granted a 10-month fellowship at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA. She worked there under Prof. Krzysztof Matyjaszewski, a Polish researcher who is also on the staff of the Polish Academy of Sciences' Center of Molecular and Macromolecular Studies in Łódź. Her research topic was ATRP polymer synthesis. The ATRP (atom transfer radical polymerization) process can produce various materials with strictly defined architectures, including hybrid materials with molecules the size of a few nanometers, Pietrasik says.

The difference between traditional materials and nanomaterials is illustrated by carbon fibers, which are used to make golf sticks, skis, tennis rackets and so on, Pietrasik says. These fibers are around 50 microns in diameter, a size comparable to the width of a human hair. One cubic centimeter of this material is enough to make a fiber that is around 500 meters long. A nanofiber measuring 30 nanometers in diameter made of 1 cubic centimeter of material would be 1,500,000 kilometers long, four times the distance from the Earth to the Moon. And a fiber of 3 nanometers in diameter would be 150,000,000 kilometers long, which is the distance from the Earth to the Sun.

Work with Matyjaszewski and his research group was quite a new experience for Pietrasik. In Poland, she had dealt with silica fillers and elastomers and wrote a Ph.D. thesis on this subject. Elastomers are polymers with the property of elasticity, such as natural or synthetic rubber. The use of silica fillers-instead of carbon blacks commonly used to date-changes some elastomer properties such as color. Silica is white, which means the polymer may come in any color depending on the dye added to the filler. Materials obtained in this process are used to manufacture shoes, foams, gaskets, wires, sports goods, waterproof textiles, and tires.

Scientists at Michelin were the first to start research on silica fillers. Pietrasik applied the method to synthetic rubber and examined the properties of the material obtained in this way. She has several publications on this topic to her credit and has been using the experience gathered abroad in her research work back home. She has decided to change the properties of silica by means of a polymer synthesized with the ATRP method. The purpose is to use the new composite in dental materials.

Hybrid materials are composites that contain two completely different components, for example organic and inorganic ones. Pietrasik uses silica and hydroxyapatite. The latter is found in human teeth and bones and serves as a scaffolding that gives them mechanical strength. An additional advantage is that hydroxyapatite is biocompatible. Pietrasik has decided to modify hydroxyapatite with polymers and use it to fill cavities in teeth.

"I don't know if this will work," says Pietrasik. The use of polymers as implants or drug carriers-such as temperature-sensitive polymers that shrink once they reach the focus of inflammation and release the drug-is difficult because the functioning of the human body is very complex. But considering that hydroxyapatite-coated hip implants can integrate into bone structures, one can expect that this method will also offer benefits to dentistry.

Pietrasik is soon leaving for the United States again to maintain her research contacts there. She will stay there six weeks and will be able to use modern equipment such as a gel permeation chromatographer. Thanks to the money from the Foundation for Polish Science, she can continue her work with U.S. researchers and conduct her own research.

Pietrasik is also working on the use of polymers in biodegradable materials to promote environmental protection.

Danuta K. Gruszczyńska
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