Volume 10, Number 4, 2001

A homecoming for award-winning scientist

When Kristi Kiick arrived on the UD campus in summer 2001 as an assistant professor of engineering, there were at least two problems that she didn't share with other new faculty--how to find her way around campus and where to seek external funding for her research.

As a 1989 UD graduate with a bachelor of science degree in chemistry, Kiick says she felt like she was "coming home" in returning to Delaware, and she came armed with a $40,000 Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation New Faculty Award to initiate her research in polymer engineering.

The Dreyfus award is designed to provide new faculty working in chemistry, biochemistry or chemical engineering with research support that begins with their first full-time academic appointment. Kiick, a member of the faculty in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, is pursuing research in the general area of biomaterials. In being selected for the award, she joins just 10 other young faculty members across the nation.

While Kiick says she is happy to return to her alma mater, her decision to accept a faculty position at Delaware was influenced by far more than the comfort of familiarity. "I was very impressed with the commitment the department has made to biomaterials through its affiliation with the Delaware Biotechnology Institute [DBI]," she says. "This is a very popular area of research right now, and lots of people want to be involved, but Delaware was the only school that had the entire infrastructure in place, from the dedicated building to the labs to the people. That was unique, and it was a very strong selling point for me."

Kiick's route to a faculty position took a rather circuitous path. After earning her bachelor's degree, she went to work for Kimberly-Clark, making super-absorbent materials for products such as disposable diapers.

"We were using synthetic polymers, but the company wanted to explore the use of bio-based materials," Kiick says. "So, I was offered the opportunity to study at the University of Massachusetts for a year under Dr. David Tirrell, who was investigating recombinant DNA techniques for making artificial proteins. I ended up staying on to earn master's and doctoral degrees there in polymer science and engineering." She also holds a master's degree in chemistry from the University of Georgia.

With faculty start-up funds from UD and the Dreyfus award, Kiick and her research group will immediately set up a lab and begin work in the design and characterization of materials for use in molecular and cellular recognition. Borrowing concepts and techniques from the disciplines of molecular biology, chemistry, biochemistry and materials science, the research is aimed at constructing sequences of amino acids--the building blocks of proteins--with properties tailored to specific applications. Kiick says she hopes to produce macromolecules that can expedite the development of new biomaterials and therapeutic strategies to minimize inflammatory responses and metastasis, thereby helping to fight such diseases as rheumatoid arthritis and cancer.

In addition to UD's strong administrative support of research, Kiick says she was attracted by the teaching opportunities in a relatively small and new department. "As one of only eight faculty in the materials science department, I can have an impact on education in terms of not only teaching but also curriculum development and student recruitment," she says.

Kiick's initial teaching assignments include a graduate course in polymer synthesis and an undergraduate materials science course. Her longer-term plans include designing a polymer synthesis laboratory and developing a biomaterials course. A virtual-reality room at DBI will enable her students to visualize macromolecular structures.

"I'm also excited about the opportunities for collaboration here," Kiick says. "I can talk to people in chemistry and biochemistry, as well as in biology."

"Kristi's research expertise was sought by every major university in the country last year," John F. Rabolt, department chairperson and Böer Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, says. "She decided to join UD because of the opportunities available in the College and at DBI to do high-quality research in biomaterials. We are all very excited to have her as a colleague."

--Diane Kukich