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Epps receives national award for young scientists

University of Delaware

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IMAGE: Recipient of the 2007 Lloyd Ferguson Young Scientist Award from the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE). view more

Credit: Kathy F. Atkinson/University of Delaware

Thomas H. Epps III, assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of Delaware, is the recipient of the 2007 Lloyd Ferguson Young Scientist Award from the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE). Epps received the award in a ceremony held April 5 at the organization's national conference in Orlando.

Established in 1997 in honor of one of NOBCChE's founders, the Lloyd Ferguson Young Scientist Award is presented annually to a recipient who has demonstrated early promise and accomplishments and has the potential to sustain a productive scientific career.

"It was nice to receive this award from the standpoint that I was recognized by my peers--other researchers in the chemical sciences," Epps said. "It was an honor to be acknowledged and to be able to serve as a role model for the African-American students who attended the conference."

Prof. Lloyd N. Ferguson, after whom the award is named, led a distinguished career as a researcher, educator and mentor. He authored several chemistry textbooks and more than 50 research publications.

In 1943, Ferguson became the first African-American to earn a doctorate in chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley. During his 20-year tenure at Howard University, Ferguson established the first doctoral program in chemistry at any historically black college or university. He later went on to serve 21 years at California State University at Los Angeles, where he developed programs to recruit minority students into the sciences.

"One of the most inspirational aspects of Prof. Ferguson's career is that as a high-school student, he took the initiative to develop several products of commercial relevance," Epps said.

As a youth, Ferguson converted a shed in his parents' backyard into a makeshift laboratory, where he developed a moth repellent, a product for cleaning silverware and a powdered lemonade mix.

Epps said he has had a number of inspiring mentors throughout his academic career.

As an undergraduate student, Epps worked in the laboratory of Paula Hammond, the Bayer Chair Professor of Chemical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he learned to build a variety of scientific equipment, including a modified microscope to look at the optical properties of polymers for flexible display applications, such as flexible LCD screens. Epps received both his bachelor's and master's degrees from MIT.

While an undergraduate, Epps also interned for two summers with Adel Halasa, a chief architect of the Aquatred tire, at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. Halasa helped Epps refine his laboratory techniques and hone his ability to analyze data and draw meaningful conclusions, Epps said.

Epps' doctoral adviser, Frank Bates, Distinguished McKnight University Professor and head of the department of chemical engineering and materials science at the University of Minnesota, also has had a significant influence on Epps' academic career.

Epps' father, who was a chemistry professor for 30 years, and mother, who is an accounting professor, also have been important role models and key supporters, he said. "My parents never pushed me in a particular direction, but they were always very supportive of anything I wanted to do," Epps said.

Epps said he hopes to have a similar impact on students.

"My hope is that people who thought they couldn't achieve something can see me and say, 'Hey, maybe I can do what I want to do after all.' While I was very fortunate to have a very stable childhood, I hope that others can rise above their circumstances and have a significant and positive impact on the world," Epps said.

Epps recently received the National Science Foundation's prestigious Faculty Early Career Development Award for research on block copolymers. These self-assembling, nano-scale materials are accelerating the development of many technologies, ranging from more efficient fuel cells to chemical-resistant, yet breathable military clothing.

Epps also has a seed grant from the Delaware Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research to explore the use of block-copolymer membranes in capturing tiny protein fragments, particularly in aquatic systems. The research eventually may lead to the creation of new environmental sensors.

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