MII selects 2019 Wilkes Interdisciplinary Scholars
October 31, 2019
The Macromolecules Innovation Institute (MII) has named Camden A. Chatham, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in macromolecular science and engineering (MACR), and David A. Dillard, the Adhesive and Sealant Science Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics, as this year’s recipients of the Garth L. Wilkes Interdisciplinary Scholar Awards.
This award, first given in 2018, recognizes one MII-affiliated student and one MII-affiliated faculty member who represents interdisciplinary excellence in research, teaching, and engagement. The award also honors Garth L. Wilkes, professor emeritus in the Department of Chemical Engineering, who co-founded the Polymer Materials and Interfaces Laboratory (PMIL), one of MII’s predecessor organizations, and also helped develop the interdisciplinary MACR graduate degree.
“This award we give every 18 months to a faculty member and student is meant to solidify and endure Garth Wilkes’ passion for an interdisciplinary approach to research,” said Timothy Long, director of MII and professor of chemistry.
Chatham’s research has focused on thermoplastic polymers in the additive manufacturing processes of powder bed fusion and fused filament fabrication. Specifically, Chatham has spent most of his Ph.D. studying the properties and printability of poly(phenylene sulfide) (PPS) through powder bed fusion.
Dillard’s research looks at performance and durability issues of polymeric materials with an emphasis on adhesives, adhesive bonding, and sealants. He frequently works with principles of fracture mechanics, viscoelasticity, and durability.
As a student in the MACR program, Chatham has experienced the interdisciplinary environment at Virginia Tech. Although he primarily works in the DREAMS Lab in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, he also splits time with the Long Group in the Department of Chemistry.
“At times it feels like I’m too much of a mechanical engineer for the chemist and too much of a chemist for the mechanical engineer, but that’s the nature of being this interdisciplinary bridge,” Chatham said.
Long called Chatham a modern-day researcher and a great example of what Wilkes would endorse in a student.
“Cam does not simply want to print something,” Long said. “Cam will understand the molecular structure, understand how it will affect the properties, and understand how those properties can be used to predict printability.”
Christopher Williams, the director of the DREAMS Lab and the associate director of MII, said Chatham’s success and contributions to research, scholarship, mentoring, and service is what made him worthy of the award.
“He’s able to speak the vocabularies of both mechanical engineering and chemistry, and he recognizes and performs good research in those areas,” Williams said. “That’s the challenge — not just speaking both vocabularies, but adapting to the expectations and slight professional definitions of what research is.”
Chatham admits it is tough to conduct research in two disciplines, but knowledge from both sides has driven his research forward.
“Being able to ‘speak both languages’ and understand all parts of the supply chain, all parts of the research process, and pull enough together from different sources is what makes interdisciplinary research the strongest,” Chatham said. “It’s the overlap between fields and tying multiple strengths together.”
Before coming to Virginia Tech, Dillard’s first job involved adhesives and composites while working at McDonnell Douglas, an aerospace manufacturing company, which has since merged with Boeing. He quickly realized working in industry was not what he wanted to do long-term. He found his passion instead in teaching and earned his Ph.D. from Virginia Tech in engineering mechanics.
Although industry was not the right career setting, Dillard learned some valuable lessons that he brought to Blacksburg. Whereas academia traditionally operated in siloed divisions — departments completing their work and research independently — that’s not how industry works.
“In the real world, you don’t see chemistry versus mechanical engineering,” Dillard said. “People work together. The industry demands that we be interdisciplinary, and a lot of the opportunities are at the interface between different disciplines.”
Dillard appreciated that many Virginia Tech faculty members around him had spent time in industry and took the same approach to working collaboratively.
“Adhesion is inherently very interdisciplinary,” Dillard said. “That has given me the opportunity to work with others.
“You need to know something about the surface, so I’ve worked with people like Jim Wightman, John Dillard, and Alan Esker; we need to know something about polymer systems, necessitating interactions with people like Garth Wilkes and Tom Ward; and polymer synthesis, so I have worked with people like Jim McGrath, Tim Long, and Judy Riffle.”
Long, who has worked with Dillard for two decades, said Dillard is an extraordinary teacher and well deserving of the award.
“Garth would surely say, ‘Yes, you’re wearing all the hats that’s expected of a modern-day professor, and you’re doing it exceptionally well,’ ” Long said. “He will raise the bar for what’s expected of a Wilkes Interdisciplinary Scholar.”
In addition to his research, Dillard is a former director of the Center for Adhesive and Sealant Science (CASS), which he merged along with the PMIL, the Center for Composite Materials and Structures (CCMS), the Materials Institute, and the MACR degree program into MII in 2004. He has also been a core faculty member in MII’s Adhesion Science Short Course for more than two decades.