Pitt professor first woman to win Polymer Prize

By Leo Dornan / For the Pitt News

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As the first woman to win the Polymer Physics Prize, Anna Balazs remembers the women who came before her.

“I look to the women before me and I am so impressed with all the work they have done themselves to move the field forward,” Balazs said.

Balazs, a petroleum and chemical engineering professor at Pitt, will become the first woman to receive the Polymer Physics Prize, an honor the American Physical Society awards annually to any physicist worldwide for excellence of contributions to polymer physics. She will receive the prize in March of next year.

Coming with a check of $10,000, Balazs will be the 56th recipient of the award since its inauguration in 1960. She joins a list of many distinguished colleagues and past leaders in the field from around the world including Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, Sir Samuel Edwards and Glenn Fredrickson.

The prize recognizes her work with theoretical modeling of polymers — or clusters of repeating molecules —  and their relevance to experiments, allowing her and other researchers to better understand polymers’ behavior and create more accurate physical experiments.

Balazs has been at Pitt since 1987 and has emerged as a leader in the polymer physics community. Because many different fields use polymers, her work has engaged people of all scientific backgrounds, who can apply the data from her modeling and use it in their own experiments.

“Anna makes [her research] vivid and accessible. She writes out the equations, but also provides pictorial descriptions. She enables those around her to put the research into practice,” Todd Emrick, a frequent collaborator with Balazs, who works at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, said.

Focusing largely on polymers ­Balazs has pioneered polymer research for the last 15 years, creating polymers that repair themselves and polymers that pick up molecular objects and move them to different locations in a tissue or cell.

“Working with Anna is wonderful. We have had numerous interesting findings, and she brings such talent and insight into problems,” Emrick, who is also the director of the National Science Foundation’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, said.

Currently, Emrick and Balazs are researching polymers that identify objects on a surface, capture them and release them in a different location.

“It’s like an Uber for polymers,” Emrick said.

Balazs and Emrick think other researchers could use their “Uber” to transport cells and enable them to deliver minerals to or demineralize a certain area of the body.

One of her colleagues at Pitt, Professor Chandralekha Singh, who is also the director of the Discipline-Based Science Education Research Center, frequently collaborates with Balazs, and said Balazs’ drive and passion allow her to succeed.

“[Balazs] is very passionate about her research and is always focused on excellence in whatever she is working on,” Singh said. 

Balazs’ passion drives her to cover many topics in polymer physics, focusing mainly on theoretical modeling, Singh said. Balazs predicted new phenomena by using polymers, a method others had not considered through her theoretical modeling. She has worked on topics including self-healing materials, polymers that move away and hide from the light like earthworms and polymers that have the ability to move objects from one area to another.

Overall, her colleagues agree that her ability to use theories and experiments in tandem to solve problems distinguishes her as a leader. Every time they work together, Emrick said, he is impressed with the skills that Balazs brings to their work. Balazs, however, is always ready to share the credit with others.

“I have had such great role models to follow, men and women. I’m just humbled to receive this award,” she said.

Balazs said she plans to continue researching polymers, adding to her more than 30 years of work in the field, and to continue leading others through her research.

“It is spectacular that Anna has won this award. Hopefully she is the first of many women to win it,” Emrick said.

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