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NSF Fellowship Sends Ph.D. Candidate to Japan for Bioplastics Research

Alex Levine to work at RIKEN Institute

Alex Levine with Chris Nomura

ESF doctoral candidate Alex Levine has been selected for a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) fellowship based on his proposal to expand the potential applications for biobased, biocompatible and biodegradable plastics.

The fellowship with the NSF's East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes provides an opportunity for U.S. graduate students to receive funding for research in seven East Asia and Pacific locations.

Levine, who is studying biochemistry, will spend the summer in Japan working with Dr. Keiji Numata in a laboratory at the RIKEN Institute near Tokyo. RIKEN is "the premiere research institute in Japan for physics and chemistry," according to Dr. Christopher Nomura, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Levine's graduate advisor.

"The type of work I'm doing is part environmental science, part materials science," said Levine, who has long wanted to visit Japan. "We plan to improve the physical properties of existing biodegradable plastics through chemical modification."

The bioplastics Levine works with are polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs).

"It's, in a very classical sense, organic chemistry," he explained. He will observe how chemically altering PHAs will change their physical properties. Because the polymers are biocompatible, they can be used for medical purposes, including wound dressings and tissue scaffolds. Stronger, flexible PHAs might be used as bone scaffolds to encourage rapid healing whereas softer PHAs can be used as artificial tissue.

Working with Numata, who is recognized as a leading expert in biomaterial research, Levine will study whether the polymers are compatible with cells and living tissue. "Can I improve these plastics for use in the medical field," he asked. Understanding the physical properties is important in developing new applications, he said.

Levine will "look at how these materials interact with different human cell lines to see how compatible they are," said Nomura.

Levine believes scientists have a good understanding about what bioplastics can be used for, but there is more to learn about how the material can be changed for different uses. "We need to be able to make better plastics, and in larger amounts," he said. He will study the PHAs to understand the decomposition times and if those times can be adjusted for specific purposes. For example, a PHA might break down as a wound dressing in a few days, weeks or months.

"By tuning his polymers with his chemistry, he might be able to control these types of applications," Nomura said.

Levine will experiment with tissue cultures outside the human body. "If those studies turn out to be promising, there are a number of steps to go through," said Nomura. This type of research takes a substantial amount of time to develop before mainstream uses, but Levine is hopeful. "There's very good momentum," he said.

There are broader implications to Levine's work. "The biodegradable plastics have the opportunity to replace petroleum plastics," he said. Nomura agrees that this is the goal, including using PHAs for bulk commodity purposes. Replacing traditional plastics with bioplastics, however, is a costly proposition. "I just don't think that the rest of the American community has caught on to the environmental impacts of these products like ESF has," said Nomura.

Nomura hopes this fellowship will open up more opportunities internationally for ESF. "In terms of the opportunity for the college, what I hope to obtain from this is letting people know that it exists for graduate students and that it will pay for travel, give students a stipend and give them an opportunity to use equipment and resources that we don't have at ESF," said Nomura.

"It allows another country to get a good look at ESF and what ESF brings to the global pursuit of science. We don't work in a vacuum," said Nomura. Levine agreed, "We're collaborating with scientists over there all the time and working to solve problems."

"Understanding and knowing we live in a dynamic and global environment makes you realize you can pursue research or economic opportunities anywhere," said Nomura. "It opens up your eyes a little bit as a student that you can participate in research globally. It opens up your perspective."

- By Alison Gibson ES '14