USM Polymer and Engineering ranked among top U.S. programs
Published 10:45 am Wednesday, December 21, 2022
The University of Southern Mississippi’s (USM) School of Polymer Science and Engineering (SPSE) has been named one of the best polymer/plastics engineering programs by Plastics Today. The ABET-accredited program is housed within the Thames Polymer Science Research Center on the Hattiesburg campus.
USM is among six university programs recognized in this prestigious plastics industry publication. Over the past 52 years, USM has established itself as one of the premier schools of polymer science and engineering in the world and has been preparing graduates to secure jobs in the industry. Particularly, coatings are a fundamental part of the program, with dedicated coursework, scholarships, and job placement in the coatings industry.
“This ranking confirms what we know to be the case at Southern Miss, namely that our School of Polymer Science and Engineering has been and continues to be well ahead of the curve in preparing our graduates for the industries of today and the future,” said Dr. Chris Winstead, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “The plastics industry is a vital and strategic component of our economy, with manufacturing and environmental improvements being enabled by the developments of Southern Miss researchers.”
According to a 2022 report by the Plastics Industry Association, the plastics industry ranked as the sixth largest in the U.S. in 2020, making it a high-paying in-demand and appealing career path for future plastics engineers; however, due to the challenges and barriers in the industry, graduates will need to be highly skilled in digital manufacturing.
SPSE Assistant Director Bret Calhoun noted that USM has been ahead of the Industry 4.0 era curve for years through a curriculum that focuses on those sought-after skills.
“Our curriculum prepares students for advanced manufacturing and sustainability,” said Calhoun. “High-throughput formulation using robotics was introduced to our students almost two decades ago; students at all levels engage with utilizing 3D printing on many fronts, including prototyping for senior design projects and development of new resins for printers.”
Additionally, Calhoun highlighted that commitments to sustainability and innovation are key for addressing the barriers and challenges to plastics recycling and for creating a circular economy.
“Sustainability is a research thrust in the school, including development of new materials from biobased feedstocks, polymer degradation, recycling of traditional plastics, and environmental remediation using separation membranes,” said Calhoun.
Dr. Derek Patton, Director of the SPSE further noted, “Sustainability of plastics is a forefront issue for many industrial sectors that is being driven by increasing consumer awareness. While the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle” still applies, a comprehensive solution to plastics sustainability requires innovation in multiple areas, including how plastics are synthesized, processed, and reprocessed,” he added. “For example, there is a growing demand for the development of environment-friendly building blocks for plastics that meet or exceed the performance of petroleum-based materials while also providing opportunities to close the loop via recovery of these building blocks at the end-of-use.”
“These issues provide areas where academic research can contribute to real societal impacts,” he added. “Whether in the classroom or through hands-on research, SPSE faculty are committed to developing the next generation of polymer scientists and engineers that approach problems with sustainable practices in mind.”
Additionally, SPSE is known for making an impact in the industry by bringing together academic and industrial scholars from across the globe for its Annual International Waterborne Symposium.
“This pre-eminent educational and technical forum showcases new and innovative technologies and keeps scholars abreast of breakthrough discoveries,” said Dr. Patton.
What does the journey as a polymer science and engineering student look like? Undergraduate students at Southern Miss are expected to participate in faculty-led research groups during their time in school, with many beginning to gain experience in a research-and-design environment as early as their freshman year.
During their sophomore year, students start gaining a broad perspective of the nature of research and design, as they participate in laboratory rotations. During their senior year, students participate in a senior design project. Students also conduct sponsored, real-world research projects under the direction of a faculty mentor and typically a graduate student or postdoctoral mentor, as well. Projects are sponsored through grants and awards from entities such as the National Science Foundation, Department of Defense, and various industrial partners.