The United States Air Force Research Lab recently awarded a $6.3 million contract to the University of Southern Mississippi and Florida State University.
The funding will be used to research composites, and the objective is to find military-grade applications for them. The specifics of the research are otherwise confidential.
Each university has its own respective research group, and the Southern Miss team is led by Polymer Science Professor Dr. Jeffrey Wiggins.
The research team began work in October, and will continue to work over an 18 month period. Wiggins’ research group includes researchers and faculty members from the university, such as Dr. Jason Azoulay, Dr. Olivia McNair, Dr. Sergei Nazarenko, Dr. James Rawlins, Dr. Yoan Simon and Dr. Jinhai Yang.
“All I can really say is that the project is in place to develop multi-functional composite materials, which are smart materials that they are using to build airplanes,” said Wiggins.
“The goal is to help create multifunctional aerospace grade thermoset composites. The grant helps [us] establish baselines for new techniques [and] new technologies, and it allows us to push ourselves to do new things,” said McNair. “With some of the infrastructure that’s been established, I think it will position us uniquely to any other place in the United States [with how we’ll] be able to achieve some of the things they have asked us to do.”
Wiggins also mentioned Southern Miss had an established relationship with the Air Force Research Lab, which played a part in earning the grant.
“I’ve been working with the Air Force Research Lab for a number of years,” said Wiggins. “We have had students at the Air Force Research Lab. They have hired our students in the past, so we have a long-standing relationship.”
“That’s an extreme honor to have that much trust instilled in you,” said McNair. “To have the opportunity to solve some real-world problems in real time is very unique, and I’m happy and excited that the Air Force chose Southern Miss to be able to accomplish some of those feats.”
Wiggins also spoke about the importance of the funds, especially for future projects.
“The funds that are provided by research sponsors like the Air Force Research Lab, other laboratories and major corporations are critical for the university to progress and to have the level of research that is necessary for us to properly prepare our country’s next generation of scientists and engineers,” Wiggins said. “It makes sure that our scientists and engineers are working in areas of national relevance and national need – not only for defense, but for competitive needs for the country as a whole.”
The research is not limited to just faculty, either. Students can also get involved with Wiggins’ team.
“One thing that we are very proud about is being able to help develop our students into the next generation of composites engineers [and to have them] ready to solve problems, ready to identify different types of techniques and understand different methods to measure material properties and make new materials,” said McNair.
Both Wiggins and McNair emphasized how important this research was for students when it comes to the workforce.
“[The School of Polymer Science and Engineering] has allowed us to develop expertise in many different fields and international recognition for the research and work that we do. It allows our students to get good jobs all over the world,” said Wiggins.
“We have had several research graduate-students involved in the program to a pretty good extent. That, to me, is a win-win all the way around,” said McNair. “It’s the same at Florida State. They also have graduate students working in the research lab, solving problems and measuring techniques.”
McNair also noted that Southern Miss and Florida State are closely working with each other because of this project. She emphasized the importance of teamwork in their field, especially with the different areas of expertise.
“I imagine they [will] be our best friends for the next year or so,” McNair said.The collaboration marks another historic advancement for the nationally recognized School of Polymer Science and Engineering at the University of Southern Mississippi. For more information about the program, visit www.usm.edu/polymer-science-engineering.