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Malancha Gupta Wins NSF Career Award

Chemical engineer plans to deepen research on porous polymer coatings
By Marc Ballon
March 05, 2013 —
NSF Career Award Winner Malancha Gupta

Malancha Gupta, a leading expert on polymer coatings and an assistant professor in the Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, has won the prestigious NSF Career Award.

The award, among the most sought-after for newer faculty members, rewards “creative, integrative and effective research and educational plans.” Her award comes with a $400,000 grant, which she said she would use to “push the boundaries of my current work.”

“I am delighted and proud that Malancha has received this prestigious award, which recognizes both her scholarly accomplishments and potential for future scholarship,” said Steven Nutt, chair of the department of chemical engineering and materials science. “She has demonstrated an exceptional talent set, attracting funding for her growing lab, recruiting outstanding students for her group and for the department, and publishing her groundbreaking work in top scientific journals.”

Gupta’s NSF-recognized research focuses on the challenge of both creating porous polymer materials and affixing them to other such materials. Placing porous materials on porous materials creates a double-filtration system that can be employed for water purification and biomedical sensors that screen for disease, among many other uses.

“If you have a filter that works to a certain degree, we can add another layer of filtration and make it work even more efficiently,” Gupta said.

Gupta and the Ph.D. students in her lab will explore how changes in temperature, pressure and other variables impact the size and function of the polymer pores. Additionally, Gupta and her team will use a portion of the NSF funding to teach local K – 12 public school students about STEM and porous materials. Specifically, they hope to use coffee filters for hands-on demonstrations and training.

Gupta has conducted polymer coatings research for more than a decade. As a Ph.D. engineering student at M.I.T., she worked with the renowned Professor Karen Gleason. Together, they explored how different pressures and temperatures could affect the uniformity of fluoropolymer coatings, which, like Teflon, is water repellent and non-stick.

After graduating with her doctorate in 2007, Gupta spent two years at Harvard University as a postdoctoral research in the chemistry department. She worked under the guidance of Professor George Whitesides. Gupta joined USC in 2009.

Along the way, Gupta contributed to research that has resulted in more environmentally sound ways to apply polymers. Traditionally, the plastic-like substances are transformed into liquids or sprays and applied to materials, which creates organic waste.

By contrast, Gupta heats chemicals to turn them into vapors, or gas. The vapors are adsorbed onto materials under a vacuum system, meaning the process produces little if any waste.

Last year, Gupta won the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund Doctoral New Investigator Award for her work with applying polymers onto ionic liquids. She is using her grant to study how to combine polymers with liquids to create composite thin films for alternative energy applications.

A native New Yorker, Gupta grew up with a love of chemistry and math. The daughter of a civil engineer father, she was exposed to and interested in engineering at an early age. Gupta studied chemical engineering at the Cooper Union in NYC on a full-tuition scholarship.

At USC, she said she has enjoyed working with and teaching talented undergraduate and graduate students and Los Angeles’ many cultural offerings.

“I love USC,” she said. “I feel lucky to be here.”