In his 42-year academic career, William J. MacKnight has led important research on polymers like micromolecules and crystallizable block copolymers. But what made him famous in the plastics industry is his role as one of the founders of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst's polymer program.
Today, the program is well-known around the world.
MacKnight won the International Award at the Society of Plastics Engineers Antec 2007 conference May 6 in Cincinnati.
``As someone who has spent his entire career in academia, it's an extremely gratifying experience to feel that your work in that time has some technological relevance,'' said MacKnight, who turned 71 years old the day before he received the International Award.
MacKnight earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry from the University of Rochester in New York. He went on to receive a master's degree, then a doctorate in chemistry from Princeton University in 1964. He stayed there for a year of post-doctorate work.
He was planning to get a job in industry when he ran into Richard Stein, a fellow Princeton alumnus and a chemistry professor at UMass. Stein, who had studied under the legendary Herman Mark, already had an international reputation, although UMass was not very well-known, MacKnight said.
``It was almost by accident,'' MacKnight recalled. ``Professor Stein came to a symposium at Princeton and we met, and an opening had developed rather unexpectedly at UMass. He had been pushing for another polymer position at the time. He was a one-man operation.''
MacKnight accepted, moving to Amherst and setting the stage for his life's work in the classroom and research laboratories.
MacKnight joined the UMass chemistry faculty in 1965. The following year, he and Stein founded the polymer science and engineering program.
SPE gave Stein its International Award in 1969. Stein entered the Plastics Hall of Fame in 1994.
``I was the new kid on the block,'' MacKnight said. ``But he and I were it. So right away I was plunged into not only trying to start a research program, but being vitally involved in administrative matters.
``So he was the lead, but I was the only game in town, so I had to help him, and teach, and do research.''
Building a department from scratch was stressful but exciting. ``But you know, it was like the child that's thrown into the swimming pool and learns to swim. It's great experience if you don't drown,'' he said, chuckling. ``Actually, I survived.''
He served as department head for two terms, from 1976-85, then from 1988-95.
A native of Long Island, MacKnight became interested in chemistry because of a high school teacher, Clifton Laplatney. ``I did the usual thing, which was generate chlorine in the basement, gas out everybody in the house,'' MacKnight said.
MacKnight then discovered he also liked physics. From then on, the interest in chemistry and physics combined in much of his major research into physical chemistry, as opposed to the organic variety. The research follows a pattern: Synthesize the material in the laboratory, do physical testing and relate the properties to the original polymer structure.
His seminal book, Introduction to Polymer Viscoelasticity, co-authored with Montgomery Shaw, came out in 1972.
MacKnight has trained 48 doctorate students in polymer science and engineering. He has written more than 330 technical papers.
MacKnight, who retired in 1999, is the Wilmer D. Barrett Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Polymer Science and Engineering at UMass.
He is also a member of the National Academy of Engineering. Last year, he won the American Chemical Society's Paul J. Flory Education Award.
Brookfield, Conn.-based SPE lauded MacKnight's contributions to understanding the structure-property relationships in ionomers, polymer blends and polyurethanes. The unifying theme has been investigating the microphase separation that characterizes those three micromolecules.
In each one, the polymer chain has two different kinds of parts that want to get far away from each other, MacKnight said. That internal tension is the key to their properties.
His most recent work has involved preparation and polymerization of cyclic carbonate and ester oligomers, by researching crystallizable block copolymers.
It's the stuff of labs and intense doctoral work. But things like ionomers have a practical side, too.
``The material is remarkably tough and it's clear,'' MacKnight said. ``It's oil-resistant, so you can package things like meats and other foods.
``One of the big uses in the sporting world is covers for golf balls - Surlyn.
``We should never forget - and I always try and emphasize this to my students - that, really, it's the end use, the technology, that's really relevant, that makes the field as important as it is.''