After a year-long search, the largest polymer science program in the United States has tapped its second dean since the inception of the College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering at the University of Akron in 1988.
Stephen Cheng, who joined UA as an assistant professor of polymer science in 1987, said it is a watershed time for the college and he is committed to bringing the polymer college to a new success.
Cheng, originally from Shanghai, said the college needs to attract more American students and refresh its relations with local industries and institutes.
The first big step toward that goal is a full-scholarship program that condenses undergraduate and graduate education in polymer into five years.
The new program will aim to attract top-notch high school students, who will be able to choose from a variety of science and engineering programs for the first three years at UA. ``Then they will spend two years in the polymer program to receive a master's degree,'' Cheng said in a July 18 interview.
Awaiting final approval, Cheng said he hopes the program can start as soon as possible.
``It will have an impact on the local society and help with the local economy,'' he said.
The college currently has about 30 faculty members and more than 200 graduate students, larger than competitors including Case Western University, California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The college also was ranked by U.S. News and World Report as the second-best polymer program in the United States, after the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
About 65 percent of the student body is foreign, Cheng said, and more than half of the faculty members have international backgrounds.
Cheng, 58, also said the college will revise the curriculum continuously to fit students' needs.
UA is active in forming international partnerships, Cheng said. He wants to collaborate more with other departments, colleges and universities, and to refresh relationships with industry.
``I always encourage faculty members to conduct applied research and solve problems for industry, not just the very pure fundamental research,'' Cheng said. In addition to running an applied research laboratory, the college also has each faculty member carry out industry-related research.
The college has been very fruitful in developing patents with faculty and students. ``We are delighted to see our research turn into products in the store,'' he said.
Cheng has drawn $18 million in research funds during his years at UA. He said 30 percent of his funding is from industry.
The college also hopes to attract projects from government research centers, in cooperation with other science and engineering disciplines at the university.
Faculty and funding
Cheng's predecessor, Frank Kelley, expressed major concern with the loss of senior faculty members when he retired last summer after 28 years at the helm. Since then, the polymer science department has had two senior professors retire and one leave for an industry job.
``We are continuously losing people because of the age distribution of the faculty: About 40 percent of the faculty members are 60 years or older,'' Cheng said.
In order to keep the program's momentum without major gaps or ups and downs, Cheng said the college is recruiting faculty with a balance of senior and younger scholars.
``We need to hire the right people if we want to move forward.''
He is using a hiring tactic called cluster-hiring - putting together groups of researchers with supplementary expertise in different fields, such as chemistry and physics.
``We are looking for people who can supplement the core competency of our current faculty members,'' Cheng said. ``When they go out to apply for funding, they'll be much stronger than an individual researcher.''
He believes that by doing so, the polymer program will be strengthened tremendously.
The funding issue becomes more pressing as senior faculty members retire or leave. Cheng said he would like to attract more federal funds, establish closer a relationship with industry and also work hard from the endowments side.
He aims to increase the dollar value of funds and also diversify the sources.
``Right now our majority funding is from the National Science Foundation,'' he said. ``We need to develop more sources from other government agencies and industry support.''
Polymer science is at a crossroad, Cheng said.
``Polymer science and engineering have been based on plastics technologies for the past 50 years,'' he said. ``Those technologies have matured. What is next for polymer?''
Polymer studies need to be broadened and tap into emerging areas such as information technology, biomedical technology, and nanotechnology.
``We really need to look forward and bring the program to the next step, identify and develop new areas for a field with diffused boundaries. Examples of new areas include liquid crystal, micelle, colloid, surfactant, etc. That's the way to go,'' he said.
Yet, ``we also need to maintain the expertise in plastic technology because industry needs it.''
Cheng said the college will lay out a strategy for long-term development. He is one of six organizers of the 2007 NSF Polymers Workshop, to be held Aug. 15-16 in Arlington, Va. ``We will discuss the direction of polymer research in the next 10 years.''
Carrying on tradition
Cheng said Kelley's leadership at the college extended beyond academics into industry and the local community. ``I'm determined to try my best to continue the tradition,'' he said.
During the long search process, he realized the position relates to the life or death of the program. ``I wanted to see the best person be the dean, whether it was me or not.''
UA officials said Cheng stood out from more than 60 applicants. ``He is a gifted researcher and a talented teacher. He understands the polymer industry and what the industry seeks from our graduates,'' said Elizabeth Stroble, senior vice president, provost and chief operating officer, in a news release.
Cheng earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics from East China Normal University, a master's in polymer engineering from Donghua University and a doctorate in polymer chemistry from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.
He was promoted to associate professor in 1991 and to full professor in 1995. He was named the Trustees Professor of Polymer Science in 1998 and the Robert C. Musson Professor of Polymer Science in 2001.
Cheng's appointment is pending approval of the university's board of trustees Aug. 1.
``Being an internal person, I know where the problems are and can start working on them immediately,'' Cheng said.