Christine Luscombe wins $495,000 CAREER Award from NSF to support research on organic polymers and related science education

Christine Luscombe, UW assistant professor of materials science and engineering, won a five-year, $495,000 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support her research on organic polymers. Luscombe’s work holds promise for improving electronic displays, solar cells and more.

Luscombe also will use the award to support science education related to her research. She will use concepts such as solar energy as topics for writing exercises in her classes for undergraduates in the UW Department of Materials Science & Engineering (MSE). Additionally, she will develop an Internet-based “virtual classroom” for middle and high school students in Seattle, Japan and the United Kingdom.

Luscombe received the award from NSF in December 2007. Starting in March 2008, NSF will provide her with $495,000 over five years to support her research and related projects.

“This is a great opportunity for our research group and I am pleased that the NSF has recognized our work in this way,” Luscombe said.

Luscombe’s group is developing techniques to craft semiconducting organic polymers. A polymer is a chain-like chemical compound made of repeating structural units.

“We are trying to build polymers that are different sizes and shapes, like blocks or stars,” Luscombe said. “Ultimately, we are trying to control their optoelectronic properties, or how they interact with light. This may lead to cheaper, more useful electronic devices in the future.”

Semiconducting organic polymers have promising applications in the fabrication of electronic displays that are cheaper to produce for manufacturers and provide more features for consumers.

“Picture a television or computer screen you can roll up or fold, almost like a yoga mat, then put in your backpack and go,” Luscombe said. This technology might also be used to create light sources, wall decorations and even luminous clothing, she added.

Organic photovoltaic devices, or solar cells, are another potential application. While organic photovoltaic devices are more flexible, lighter and potentially less expensive to produce than traditional, silicon solar cells, right now they are not as efficient. “If we can increase the amount of energy that organic photovoltaics produce directly from sunlight, then this technology might become more marketable,” Luscombe said. Organic solar cells could be used to power portable electronic devices or hybrid vehicles, she said.

Luscombe’s research is at the intersection of materials science, chemistry and physics. Since applications like electronic displays and solar energy are familiar to most people, her research is particularly suitable for education and outreach activities, she said.

“Many teens and undergraduates have been looking at televisions and computer screens for most of their lives,” Luscombe said. “Maybe they just got a handheld music player they have to charge every day. Maybe some of them are starting to buy their own gas. Solar energy is an idea they are curious about. By connecting the underlying concepts to things they are already familiar with, hopefully we can make this science fun for them.”

Luscombe, who has been teaching at UW since 2006, said she will begin incorporating new writing exercises into her classes for MSE undergraduates later this year. “The ability to communicate clearly is something that will definitely help our students as they enter the professional world,” she said. “Teaching basic science writing now is a good way to strengthen our curriculum and prepare them for life at work.”

Luscombe also plans to develop an interactive, “virtual classroom” that will put Seattle middle and high school students in touch with their counterparts in Japan and the United Kingdom, areas where she has lived and studied herself. “By showing local students that their peers around the world are studying the same things, we can get them excited about things like chemistry and physics,” Luscombe said.

Luscombe’s CAREER Award (award abstract #0747489) was given through NSF’s Faculty Early Career Development Program, which supports “the early career-development activities of those teacher-scholars who most effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their organization.”

Luscombe received her master’s degree in 2000 and her doctorate in 2005 from the University of Cambridge. She grew up in Japan and the United Kingdom and moved to the United States in 2004. She has lived in Seattle since 2006.

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