Chemist Jeff Foster is looking for ways to control sequencing in polymers that could result in designer molecules to benefit a variety of industries, including medicine and energy.
Using the technology that he and his colleagues are developing, “scientists can begin to understand how the sequence of monomers influences the behavior and properties of synthetic polymer materials,” said Foster, an Alvin M. Weinberg Fellow at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Under the mentorship of Tomonori Saito, a synthetic polymer chemist at ORNL, Foster is using his fellowship to focus on what he calls “one of the last big frontiers of polymer science,” ways to control polymer sequencing. Polymers are molecules made of smaller chemical units called monomers and are present in all living things and many synthetic materials. Their order determines their behavior — for example, how proteins fold, aggregate and function in biological systems.
Foster’s research seeks to understand the fundamentals governing sequence and embody these principles at large scale. He hopes to use this new knowledge to create and control designer polymers that mimic biology. That could lead to a tool to create polymers with desired sequences for specific purposes, such as sustainable packaging, construction, energy storage and medicine.
“If we understand the sequence-property relationships, and we change something in the sequence, how does it change the material?” Foster asked. “Does it make it stiffer? Does it make it more chemically resistant? Does it change with temperature? How can we improve the conductivity of this material?
“We need to be able to answer those questions. It’s very fundamental, and we’re developing the technology to be able to answer those questions.”
A computer science major at first, then a biochemistry major after his first year at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, Foster took the only graduate program Cal Poly offered for a Master of Science — polymers and coatings science, as in paint.
“I took that because I didn’t want to leave,” he said. He met his future wife in high school, then reconnected in college. “We had gotten married, and we just loved the area. So I got my master’s in that because we were trying to extend our stay as long as possible.”
He said that some good mentors in the polymers and coatings program “put me on the path toward research; that’s really where I found the love for research.” After receiving that master’s degree, Foster went on to earn a doctorate in chemistry from Virginia Tech in 2017 and became a research chemist.
Ironically, when he was younger, “I didn’t even take chemistry in high school,” Foster said.
Now a staff scientist in ORNL’s Soft Materials and Membranes group within the Chemical Sciences Division, his research interests include creating novel materials and developing efficient and sustainable manufacturing processes.
Foster’s dissertation at Virginia Tech focused on applied research aimed at medical therapies. The human body produces gaseous molecules like carbon monoxide for different functions, but mostly for signaling. Signals trigger responses. For example, carbon monoxide dilates blood vessels, so its application could be therapeutic in some circumstances. Foster’s research looked at ways to develop alternative methods to deliver gases for therapy by attaching the molecules to polymers.
He and his group developed a method to attach gaseous hydrogen sulfide molecules to polymers. The research helped show hydrogen sulfide could be used in anti-cancer therapy, as it is less toxic than other therapeutic agents and could offer a promising therapy for drug-resistant cancer cells, Foster said.
After Foster received his doctorate, he and his wife moved to England for his postdoctoral work at the University of Birmingham. He worked in the United Kingdom for three years as a postdoctoral researcher, eventually becoming a group leader. When the COVID pandemic struck, he returned to the United States, eventually landing at DOE’s Sandia National Laboratories in 2020. Looking for additional research opportunities, he came to ORNL in 2022 as a Weinberg Distinguished Staff Fellow.
The fellowship suits him well, he said. With challenging projects in rich research areas including polymer sequence, plastics recycling and polymer biosynthesis, he is poised to advance understanding of sequence structure and polymer function. The fellowship, he added, gives him flexibility, freedom and access to a wide range of world-class experts and equipment.
Outside the lab, Foster has had a broad range of interests. He played college club basketball and wrote a science fiction novel while he was in graduate school — Engine of the Gods, published in 2011. A bass singer, he and his wife enjoyed choir at Cal Poly, too. Most of his nonresearch time now involves their two young daughters, ages 4 and 2, which leaves little time for leisure activities.
“We hope to get back into hiking when the girls are old enough,” Foster said, adding that the Oak Ridge area is a wonderful place for that.
ORNL’s Distinguished Staff Fellowship program aims to cultivate future scientific leaders by providing dedicated mentors, world-leading scientific resources and enriching research opportunities. Fellowships are awarded to outstanding early-career scientists and engineers who demonstrate success within their academic, professional and technical areas. Fellowships are awarded for fundamental, experimental and computational sciences in a wide range of science areas.
UT-Battelle manages ORNL for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. The Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit energy.gov/science. – Lawrence Bernard