From “Fireworks” to Polymers: An Interview With Dr. Kathryn Uhrich

In Brief:

After receiving her Ph.D. from Cornell University, Dr. Kathryn Uhrich began creating remarkably fast computer chips at Bell Labs. But she soon realized that she missed working with students and bringing her “pretty wacky” ideas to life. So Dr. Uhrich followed her dreams by pursuing a career as both a teacher and engineer. After two productive decades in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, she has recently assumed a new role as Dean of the College of Natural & Agricultural Sciences at UCalifornia Riverside. Wherever she is, this energetic and passionate scientist wants students to follow their dreams and find their own “fireworks.” In this interview conducted while she was still at Rutgers, Dr. Uhrich shares her passion for science and her groundbreaking work with polymers.

Q: How did you first get into science?

Uhrich: As a child, I really didn’t plan on becoming a scientist — I didn’t even know what a scientist was! But, I had a thirst for knowledge and was always trying to figure out how things worked. I can distinctly remember taking apart a vacuum and mixing fireworks to get a different color. Once, I was just about killed by my mother when she discovered a mischievously placed firecracker that released a little poof of purple smoke. But, my curiosity about things and wanting to discover how they worked really led me to science and engineering.

Q: What was your first experience with scientific research?

Uhrich: I actually got interested in scientific research when I worked at the Human Nutrition Laboratory in my hometown [Grand Forks, ND] during my junior year of high school. I proposed a hypothesis, tested it with the scientific method, and wrote my first scientific paper. Just seeing everything come together, from using the scientific method to ask a question and then coming up with data to answer that question, was what it was all about.

Dr. Uhrich's essential question when it comes to career choice.
Dr. Uhrich’s essential question when it comes to career choice.

Q: How did you continue your passion for science after high school?

Uhrich: I graduated from Grand Forks Central High School and declared my chemistry major at the University of North Dakota. For me, the chemistry labs were analogous to mixing fireworks; I was fascinated with chemistry and knew I wanted a career in science. I honestly don’t know why everyone doesn’t want to be a scientist.

Q: What are you currently working on?

Uhrich: I work with biodegradable polymers, which are made of many units that have chemically bonded together and can be decomposed by living organisms. My “ah-ha” moment for one of our projects, PolyAspirin, came when I was teaching my organic chemistry class. I realized that I could create a polymer that was nontoxic when it biodegraded, and have it degrade into something useful, like salicylic acid, similar to the way aspirin breaks down into salicylic acid [the primary medical compound in aspirin].

Q: Can you tell us about your team at Rutgers?

Uhrich: I lead two teams: the PolyActive group and the Amphiphilic Macromolecule group. The PolyActive project comes directly from the PolyAspirin project and the goal is to transform a bioactive molecule, a molecule that does something for the body, to ensure a slow release of medication that can work over the course of several days, weeks, or months, rather than a few hours. The Amphiphilic Macromolecule project deals with creating more potent polymers, composed of sugar, fatty-acid, and polyethylene glycol (PEG) molecules, to form drug-carriers for treating atherosclerosis [hardening of the arteries]. Amphiphilic macromolecule basically means a molecule that possesses hydrophilic [water-loving] and lipophilic [fat-loving] properties.

Q: How will your research impact the lives of everyday people?

Uhrich: Many of our ideas are still in the research phase and haven’t been approved by the FDA yet, but we are working to develop biodegradable and biocompatible polymers with many possible applications. For example, we are creating a cardiac stent to assist weak arteries, polymers to help burn victims, and drug carriers that regulate the release of pain medication.

Dr. Uhrich’s passion for science is contagious. She inspires her students, colleagues and especially young women considering becoming scientists. Her research with PolyAspirin is a “wacky” idea come to life that promises to improve delivery systems for pain-relieving drugs as well as the lives of a countless number of patients.

Katelyn McCreedy: Editor-in-Chief
Vivian Qiang: Creative Team Coordinator
Aparna Ragupathi: Copy Editor
Lotta Meriluoto: Graphic Designer

Image Credits:
Feature Image: [“Purple Boom” by Craighton Miller, via Flickr. (Unedited). License: CC BY 2.0]
Story Image: Graphic by Staff Illustrator, Lotta Meriluoto

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