Scott Phillips Receives DARPA Young Faculty Award

January 15, 2010

Scott Phillips, assistant professor of chemistry at Penn State, has received a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Young Faculty Award from the United States Department of Defense. DARPA Young Faculty Awards are given to junior faculty in the areas of the physical sciences, engineering, mathematics and social sciences in order to develop their research ideas in the context of Department of Defense issues. Recipients of the award are chosen because they show great promise as researchers and because their research focuses on innovations that will enable revolutionary advances in their field of study.

Phillips does research in the areas of organic and environmental chemistry, the design and synthesis of molecules with unique functions, analytical and bioanalytical chemistry and materials chemistry. In one project, Phillips is developing materials that respond to external signals by changing shape, function and/or surface properties. It is this work that enabled him to win the DARPA Young Faculty Award. He plans to develop polymeric materials that are capable of altering their function in response to trace-levels of specific physical or chemical signals in the environment.

According to Phillips, there are many responsive materials that are capable of changing function when exposed to a continuous application of an external signal. These materials use the energy provided by the external signal to power their responses. In contrast, he proposes to develop polymeric materials that are capable of sensing trace levels of a fleeting signal and then powering themselves to respond to the signal even after the signal is removed. Phillips hopes to develop this technology, which one day could be used to create materials that reconfigure themselves on demand.

"A simple example," he said, "could be a nut that could change to a washer and then to an o-ring, depending on what is needed for the job at hand."

Phillips also is working on a project in which he uses organic chemistry to create diagnostic devices that provide all the functions typically obtained with laboratory instruments, but that use only organic reactions. These systems may be useful in applications that require portable and inexpensive devices for detecting disease or pollution; for example, in the developing world and in hospital emergency rooms.

In another project, Phillips is developing reactions that use carbon dioxide as an inexpensive carbon source for making chemical building blocks, the compounds from which all other chemicals are made. A second program in this area focuses on reaction networks that are self-perpetuating, the simplest of which is an autocatalytic reaction, in which a molecule makes more of itself. Phillips plans to expand autocatalytic behavior into more complex reaction networks, with a goal of developing systems that provide useful functions and byproducts.

In 2009, Phillips won a research award from the Discovery Program of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and in 2008 he won a New Faculty Award from The Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation. Prior to joining the Penn State faculty in 2008, Phillips worked from 2004 to 2008 as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, where he developed new materials and detection platforms for use in drug development. He also synthesized chemical compounds with anticancer properties from marine organisms. Phillips received a bachelor's degree in chemistry at the California State University, San Bernardino in 1999, and a doctoral degree in chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley in 2004.

  • Scott Phillips

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated January 09, 2015