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Through the polymer glass: Chemist to present keynote at 2009 STEM Symposium

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – A North Newton native will be coming home to celebrate his 30-year college reunion and to talk about glass in ways that go well beyond windows and drinking vessels.

Mark Ediger, a 1979 graduate, will be the keynote speaker at the 3rd annual Science, Technology, pre-Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Symposium Friday, Oct. 2, during Bethel College’s Fall Festival. His address will focus on a new methodology for synthesizing glass developed in his lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Ediger is a chemistry professor.

Ediger is from North Newton and attended Bethel College Mennonite Church. Since he claims “about 50 other connections to Bethel College,” attending was a natural choice. His parents were the late Elmer and Mildred Ediger and his stepmother, Tina Block Ediger, and sister and brother-in-law Carol and Ron Peters all live in North Newton. His sister Elaine Burdette and her husband Bob live in Mulvane.

“I have lots and lots of good memories,” Ediger says of his time at Bethel. “My science and math at Bethel was good preparation for my later schooling and career.”

Ediger credits one Bethel professor in particular for inspiring his lasting love of chemistry. “I had Professor Tom Lehman as my instructor for seven courses at Bethel and he was just great,” Ediger says. “I particularly remember taking an individual oral exam on statistical mechanics from Tom when I was a senior. I learned so much from studying for the exam and from his questions and explanations.

“I also remember a senior laboratory course where we had to build the experiments from scratch, figure out our own control experiments and finally get some reliable data – all based on a brief suggestion from Tom. It was a great learning experience because he gave us so much freedom and responsibility. Tom and I also shared an interest in music and he invited me to sing in a Newton choral group that he had organized.”

Ediger double-majored in chemistry and math at Bethel and then earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from Stanford University. He has been teaching chemistry at UW-Madison for 25 years.

When Ediger, a polymer chemist, uses the word “glass,” he’s talking about a lot more than the stuff people look through or drink from. Though his position falls within the physical chemistry department, Ediger says the more specialized theme of his research and many of the classes he teaches is glasses, plural.

“The glassy state,” he amends quickly, acknowledging that most people would miss the more technical meaning of the common word “glass.” In Ediger’s work, glass materials are various, defined and differentiated from crystal materials by structural properties. He compares the two types of materials by the range of their molecular pattern.

“Crystals have long range order,” Ediger says. “If you had a molecule in a crystal that is surrounded by, say, six other molecules, you could basically predict the position of all the other molecules in the crystal.”

Glasses, on the other hand, have only short-range molecular order, in which it is known that a particular molecule is, for example, surrounded by six other molecules, but one cannot predict where other such molecules appear in the long-range pattern of the material.

“It’s the difference between soldiers practicing a very precise drill pattern, and those same soldiers in the chaos of battle,” Ediger says.

An article published about Ediger’s research suggests that the long-range structure of glasses is more affected by physical properties, like the melting point of the glass, or the humidity of the environment.

The methodology that Ediger’s lab has developed for synthesizing glass offers chemists greater knowledge of and precision in controlling the structure of glass molecules. Described in a recent publication, Ediger’s methodology creates the glass “layer by layer as a vapor onto a surface with an ideal temperature for yielding stable glasses.”

The National Science Foundation funds much of Ediger’s work. When he was originally writing the proposal for developing the methodology, he envisioned useful pharmacological applications for the work.

However, he says, “I’m not as optimistic as I was three years ago, having learned a little more about the properties of these glasses.” His primary interest is in the glass properties, but he hoped and still does hope that there will be some practical uses for his work.

Tangents of Ediger’s work have been taken up by graduate students. Ediger serves as an advisor to these students, with his degree of involvement changing over each student’s experience.

“In the physical sciences, being a graduate student is more like being an apprentice than a college student,” he says. “In the beginning, you want to be more available, but by the end, they’ll be able to work for weeks and weeks on their own.”

Students become so self-sufficient that they custom-make their own equipment.

“I don’t actually know how to turn on any of the instruments in my lab,” Ediger confesses.

Ediger’s graduate students also hone their skills by leading workshops with high school students – part of a wider UW-Madison program for first-generation or underrepresented groups of high school students. Ediger considers himself an instigator of the physical sciences division of this larger program, but has handed much of the responsibility off to his Ph.D. students.

Though Ediger has become accustomed to this specialized, practicum-focused culture and career, he appreciates the liberal arts point of view he received at Bethel College.

“It was nice to have had a broader perspective in my undergraduate experience,” he says.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in Forbes.com’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2009 and one of only two Kansas colleges listed in Colleges of Distinction 2008-09. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.

SIDEBAR

Schedule for 3rd annual STEM Symposium: Honoring chemistry at Bethel College

Friday, Oct. 2; sessions in Krehbiel Auditorium of the Fine Arts Center (FAC) on the Bethel campus unless otherwise indicated; all activities except lunch and evening banquet free and open to the public

8 a.m. – Welcome and introductions

8:05 a.m. – First lecture, discussion; Tina Huang, Ph.D., ’90, assistant professor of chemistry, Lafayette College, Easton, Pa., “From North Newton to Nano: Are Nanoscience and Nanotechnology the Next Industrial Revolution?”

9 a.m. – Second lecture, discussion; Warren Poag, M.D., ’97, hand and microsurgery fellow, University of Pittsburgh, “An Introduction to Microsurgical Reconstruction of the Human Body”

9:55 a.m. – Meet the speakers and former Bethel chemistry faculty (Art Gallery area, FAC)

11:45 a.m. – Lunch (cafeteria, Schultz Student Center)

1 p.m. – Keynote lecture, discussion; Mark Ediger, Ph.D., ’79, professor of chemistry, University of Wisconsin-Madison, “Mobile Surfaces, Stable Glasses and the Lucky Accident of Room Temperature”

2 p.m. – Science career paths discussion with Tina Huang, Warren Poag and Mark Ediger, moderated by Richard Zerger, Bethel College professor of chemistry

2:45 p.m. – Closing reception (Art Gallery area, FAC)

5:30 p.m. – Dinner (Mantz Library lounge – reservations required)

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