To be a woman in a STEM field was the norm for Dr. Courtney “Cori” Jenkins, whose mom and sister are both engineers. “I came from a family where it wasn’t a question of whether or not you could do it.”
Jenkins discovered that while engineering may not have been her career track, chemistry was, and not just any chemistry, but polymer chemistry. “I find it fascinating to take nothing and turn it into something useful. And so, to me, that’s what polymer chemistry feels like. It feels really rewarding, a little more fast-paced and little more applicable than some of the other areas of chemistry.”
Jenkins received a two-year $55,000 grant from the American Chemical Society to study these polymers through inverse vulcanization, which is using sulfur and linking it with organic monomers. A major focus of her research is developing new synthetic strategies to expand how inverse vulcanization can be used. This allows Jenkins, her team, and others in the field to create new materials. Metal capturing is what Jenkins and her team of students are working on in her lab. Metal capture is using the polymers to trap metals. It can be similar to a water filter where the polymer would remove metal from water. Polymers can also be made into adhesives.
The grant is designed for undergraduate programs and to fund undergraduate students in the lab as well as supplies. Fort Wayne native Clayton Westerman, who just received his master’s, is one of those students. He said he’s learned independence from Jenkins. “It’s taught me initiative, basically its self-motivation driven. If you don’t have the drive to do it, chances are you probably won’t make it. Dr. Jenkins has been a fantastic mentor for me,” said Westerman, who began his doctoral program in the Fall.
I find it fascinating to take nothing and turn it into something useful. And so, to me, that’s what polymer chemistry feels like.” —Dr. Courtney (Cori) Jenkins
Logan Eder, a master’s student from Indianapolis had the same experience as Westerman. “In my undergrad research at another university, all I did was sample water. Here I’m actually working with chemicals and making something that is very physical and in front of me, which I really enjoy.” Eder also appreciates the problem-solving aspect that comes with working in Jenkins’ lab. “I love it. I like that she expects us to get things done, but we can sort of choose our own adventure and the way we go about it is different than I had in my undergraduate experience.”
Jenkins believes in encouraging her students just as past advisors did for her. Both of her undergraduate advisors, who were women, and her PhD advisor, John Wilker, encouraged her to do and be more. “Having people push you to be better than you think you can be is really essential. It’s about making sure everything is as solid as can be so that my gender or my age just isn’t a factor.” Jenkins said developing tactile skills, creativity, and critical thinking can help her students troubleshoot problems when they get stuck.
Jenkins and her students are working on the first step in the process of making the materials from the inverse vulcanization process. She hopes to use their data to apply for larger grants as she tackles this type of research on the way to building a career in chemistry.