Putting It All Together

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Julie Jessop has a passion for polymers.

With encouragement from an excellent high school chemistry teacher and through research for her 10th-grade career report, Jessop decided relatively early that she wanted to be a chemical engineer. Through her talented teaching, creative research, and dedicated professional and community service, the University of Iowa associate professor of chemical and biochemical engineering now inspires similar passion and commitment in her
undergraduate and graduate engineering students.

Jessop is intrigued by both the ubiquity and complexity of polymers. “Polymers are everywhere in our lives,” she says. “Most people think of these chemicals in the context of recyclable milk jugs, but they also are in shampoos, clothing, CDs, and food. And changes in chemical or manufacturing processes can create polymers with different properties and therefore different uses. They are just amazing molecules.”

Jessop adds that because most polymers are based on petrochemicals, researchers need to find other, renewable raw materials to serve as the basic feedstock for the creation and production of these vital chemicals. She believes the public would be more concerned about the need for new sources if they realized that the chairs they sit on, the DVDs they watch, the medical devices that keep them healthy—all these items and thousands more are petrochemical-based polymers.

In the classroom and the lab, Jessop tries to similarly situate engineering in a broad context for her students. She talks about the history of polymer chemistry, describing how some of the first human-made polymers were created in the late 19th century to replace ivory billiard balls, and discussing how the need for “artificial rubber” during World War II sparked a boom in polymer research and development that continues today. Although her main interest is polymers research, with three graduate and three undergraduate students working on these projects, she shares her interest in the processes of materials degradation in the environment and guides research on this topic conducted by a graduate student jointly advised with professor of chemical and biochemical engineering Tonya Peeples. She also collaborates with assistant professor of chemical and biochemical engineering Jennifer Fiegel on a project that focuses on the potential use of polymer nanoparticles as drug delivery vehicles.

Jessop collaborates with graduate and undergraduate students who work in her lab as well.

“Dr. Jessop directs research rather than dictates it,” says Brian Dillman, a PhD candidate who has worked in her lab for four years. “She points us in the general direction but leaves it up to the graduate students to decide the details that need to be addressed. She has an open-door policy for her students, meets with us weekly, and listens to our ideas for new research.”

Dillman’s role in the lab is to determine how to maintain the polymerization reaction after the light which starts the process is turned off or in areas where light can’t reach, such as the juncture between the airplane wing and the fuselage where a sealant is being applied. Dillman intends to use his experience in Jessop’s lab to launch a private sector career studying photo-polymerization.

Jessop’s impact on students extends beyond the lab and the classroom, however. In 2010 the Graduate College recognized her as an Graduate College Outstanding Faculty Mentor nominee, and as the chief faculty advisor for the UI student chapter of Tau Beta Pi since 2002, she has served as both a mentor and “the memory of the organization.” In that role, Jessop has worked with around 50 students each year, helping them plan symposia, gain organizational and leadership skills, and perform outreach and service. And her impact extends to younger students, too: For the last five years, she has served as an affiliate professor for Project Lead the Way, a national program that helps train high school teachers to incorporate rigorous principles of engineering, civil engineering, and architecture into their course curricula.

Jessop also is recognized as a leader among her peers. During her tenure as chair of the American Chemical Society Division of Polymeric Materials: Science & Engineering—a professional organization of almost 5,000 members—the division strategically enhanced its professional role and effectiveness by developing a
new Internet and social media presence.

The College of Engineering recognized Jessop’s considerable dedication to her students, the University, and the profession by awarding her the 2011 Collegiate Faculty Excellence Award for Service.

The Michigan native knows firsthand the positive impact a teacher can make on a student. During her eighth-grade algebra class, she “fell in love with equations,” and when a high school chemistry teacher wrote data on the board and made the class tease out Boyle’s Law, she relished the opportunity to wrestle with a real-world problem and figure out the answer herself. But while she excelled at both math and chemistry, it wasn’t until poring through a career handbook for a tenth grade report that she heard of something called “chemical engineering.”

“At that point I decided, ‘OK, I’ll become a chemical engineer,’” Jessop says. “There were no engineers in my family, so it was sort of a leap of faith, although I already knew I wanted a PhD. My maiden name was ‘Pepper,’ and who wouldn’t want to be called ‘Dr. Pepper’?”

After two years at Oakland University, a commuter school in Rochester, Michigan, Jessop transferred to Michigan State University, where she took her first chemical engineering course from Alec Scranton, a course she loved and now teaches at Iowa. She earned a BS degree with High Honors in chemical engineering in 1994 and a PhD degree in chemical engineering in 1999. As an undergraduate and graduate student at MSU, she conducted research in the lab of Scranton, then a Michigan State chemical engineering faculty member and now the Dean of the UI College of Engineering. Jessop, Scranton, and MSU Professor of Chemistry Gary Blanchard have co-authored publications and jointly hold two patents for methods and apparatus related to curing polymers.

Shortly after arriving at Iowa in August 2000, Jessop began seeking research collaborators. At that time, researchers in the Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering were
located in the Chemistry Building.

“One day I was sitting in my office over there,” Jessop recalls, “and someone was wandering down the hall and asking everyone he met if they knew anything about polymers. I rushed out into the hall and said, ‘I do!’ That ‘wandering someone’ was Steve Armstrong.”

Like Jessop, Armstrong was new to the University; today he is an associate professor and chair of operative dentistry. Thanks to Jessop’s polymer enthusiasm, that encounter between two newly minted faculty members has resulted in more than a decade of collaborative research and close to a dozen publications on how to enhance the bonds between teeth and the polymers used in fillings.

And just as her interest in chemical bonding has driven her scholarly work, Jessop’s ability to connect with students and colleagues—as well as seamlessly link the various facets of academic life—has been a hallmark of her time at Iowa.