Polymer science is a great way to gain experience in a wide range of synthesis and characterization techniques. Sound interesting? Take a look at our frequently asked questions, below, and then email Dr. Laaser to set up a time to chat about opportunities in the group in more depth!
Most of our lab’s research focuses on systematic studies of structure-property relationships in polymeric materials. These studies typically require us to both make polymer samples with well-defined chemistries, architectures, and molecular weight distributions, and then to precisely measure their physical properties. As such, students can expect to gain experience in both polymer synthesis and characterization, although the exact balance will depend on your specific project.
With respect to synthetic skills, most students will gain experience with air-free Schlenk technique and controlled radical polymerizations such as RAFT and ATRP. Depending on project, students may also build expertise in a wide range of techniques in small molecule synthesis as they prepare specialized monomers or initiators needed for their projects.
With respect to characterization, most students will gain experience in size exclusion chromatography (SEC) and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR) of polymers. Depending on project, students may also build expertise in thermal and mechanical testing, rheology, light scattering, and dielectric spectroscopy, among others.
Finally, most students will also gain some basic programming experience (typically in MATLAB or Python) for data analysis. Occasionally, projects may also have a more substantial computational modeling component; while such projects are usually carried out in collaboration with computational groups, interested students may have the opportunity to gain basic experience in these techniques as well.
We typically have openings for 1-2 new graduate students each year. Students from all divisions of the department are welcome in our group – as long as you are interested in learning about polymers and in tackling both some synthesis and some characterization, we aren’t particularly picky about whether you’re officially an organic/pchem/inorganic/materials/etc. student.
Please note: in Fall 2022, we will be looking for at least 2 new graduate students. The available projects are likely to involve substantial synthetic components prior to physical characterization, so some interest in synthetic chemistry will be helpful.
All students who join our group will need to take CHEM 1600/2600 (Synthesis and Characterization of Polymers) for credit in the spring of their first year. Note that this course is only being offered at the graduate level/as a graduate core course every other year; students who join in a year when CHEM 2600 is not being offered should still plan to take the undergraduate version of the course (CHEM 1600) during their first year, but will need to take a fourth core course in their second year to satisfy the PhD program requirements.
Other courses will depend on which division you are in and what your specific research interests are. For example, if you are more interested in (or working on a project that focuses more on) synthetic polymer chemistry, it will be useful for you to take both the fall and spring organic chemistry core courses (typically physical organic chemistry in the fall and synthetic organic chemistry in the spring). If your focus is more on in-depth physical characterization, it may be useful for you to take statistical mechanics in the spring. Many students also enjoy the inorganic/materials core courses (descriptive inorganic & symmetry), although they are typically less directly useful for our group’s research.
If you think you are interested in joining the group, you are welcome to contact Dr. Laaser to discuss your choice of courses before your first semester, but otherwise, Dr. Laaser will help you plan your remaining coursework after you join the group.
Teaching requirements vary depending on the number of students in the group and our current funding levels. Generally, however, most students in our group TA both semesters of their first year, and one semester each year thereafter.
While students will usually be supported by a combination of research & teaching appointments, as described above, fellowships applications also provide an important opportunity for students to practice describing their research & to obtain funding that allows them to focus solely on research without the need for support through teaching appointments. As such, students will be encouraged to apply for fellowships as appropriate throughout their graduate careers, and will be mentored in preparing competitive applications. Students with a strong undergraduate background and strong performance in first-year courses, for example, will be encouraged to apply for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship in the fall of their second year. Students will also be encouraged to apply for internal university fellowships (such as the Mellon Fellowship) and other external fellowships as appropriate. Dr. Laaser will discuss these opportunities with you during your annual reviews each year.
Students who are interested in teaching careers may also elect (in consultation with Dr. Laaser) to teach more frequently to build experience. To make this a productive endeavor, Dr. Laaser will try to help you identify TA positions that will give you a chance to build more independent teaching experience and/or gain exposure to a broad range of modern pedagogical approaches. Students who are interested in teaching careers are also encouraged to participate in teaching workshops offered by the University Center for Teaching and Learning – Dr. Laaser is happy to discuss these opportunities with you in more detail if you are interested.
Dr. Laaser aims to provide students with an appropriate balance of hands-on mentoring and independence at each stage in their graduate career. Most direct mentoring takes place during scheduled weekly or bi-weekly research meetings. In their first and second year, students typically have research meetings with Dr. Laaser once a week; this structure helps make sure that students receive the guidance they need to get their projects off to a strong start and prepare for their comprehensive exam (oral exam at the end of the second year). After passing the comprehensive exam, the frequency of these meetings is typically reduced to once every other week, which enables Dr. Laaser to help make sure projects stay on track while also encouraging students to develop more independence in planning and executing their work. Outside of these meetings, Dr. Laaser generally lets students take the lead on how frequently they interact – she is always happy to sit down and chat about a problem you are trying to solve or work through a tricky data analysis problem between formal meetings if it would be helpful, but she also isn’t going to hound you for updates multiple times a day.
On that note, Dr. Laaser is generally flexible about working hours. Students are expected to put in sufficient time in the lab (and reading literature, analyzing data, etc.) to meet their research goals and make timely forward progress on their projects, but exactly how these hours are distributed are largely up to you. Generally, Dr. Laaser places a lot more weight on the progress you have made than on exactly how long you spent doing it.
With respect to progress over the course of your degree program, Dr. Laaser’s general expectation is that you will, by the time you defend your thesis, have approximately 3-4 chapters worth of results, each of which will correspond roughly to a publishable paper (even if the manuscript is not actually published yet by the time you do your defense). Specific progress expectations will vary somewhat by project, however, as some projects require significantly more method development, etc., than others, which can affect the “lead time” before you start generating real results.
Finally, to make sure that students are on track, Dr. Laaser does formal annual reviews with each student starting in their second year. In your annual review meeting, you and Dr. Laaser will discuss areas in which you are doing well, specific areas for improvement, and overall research goals for the coming year. Annual reviews are also a chance for you to discuss (and receive advice on) your career goals, and to provide Dr. Laaser with feedback on how your mentoring relationship is working.
(Note: since Dr. Laaser is writing these answers, you should probably ask the current grad students this question too, and make sure that their experience is consistent with what Dr. Laaser thinks she is doing! 😉)
We're a relatively new lab, and haven't yet graduated our first PhD students, so it's a little hard to answer this question based on past data about our lab. However, research in polymer science offers opportunities to develop a broad range of skills (including synthetic techniques, characterization methods, quantitative analysis, and programming, in addition to more general skills such as scientific communication and writing), which can be translated to a wide range of career directions.
For what it’s worth, current students in the group are interested in directions including research in industry, data science, consulting, and art conservation – you don’t have to just be interested in academic or industry research to find a home in our group, and Dr. Laaser will be happy to work with you to help you figure out how to achieve your career goals.
If you have already been admitted to the chemistry PhD program at Pitt, email Dr. Laaser to get the ball rolling. Typically, we require first-year graduate students to participate in a month-long rotation in our group, during which you will attend our group meetings, shadow current students in the lab, and try some representative experiments. If you are serious about joining our group, you should plan to take this process seriously – rotations are an important chance both for you to figure out whether you like our research and group culture, and for us to figure out whether you are a good fit for the group. For what it’s worth, we have not accepted a student who did not do a rotation in our group since the rotation program started in 2017, and engagement during rotations is typically our number one criterion when deciding who to accept.
Note: students who are interested in a more extended exploration of the group may instead join us for summer research during the summer before their first year; if this is an opportunity you are interested in, please reach out to Dr. Laaser as soon as possible to coordinate, as the number of available spots for summer students may be limited in any given year.
Finally, if you have not yet been admitted but are thinking about applying to Pitt, please note that in our department, students are admitted to the chemistry PhD program as a whole, and do not join research groups until the end of their first term in the program. As such, if you are interested in pursuing your PhD in polymer chemistry or polymer physics in our group, you will need to apply to the PhD program first. While Dr. Laaser is always happy to hear from prospective students, please be aware that she will not make any commitments about accepting you into the group prior to your matriculation in the program.