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USC chemical engineering professor wins NSF Career award

Malancha Gupta joined the USC Viterbi School of Engineering faculty in 2009.

Malancha Gupta, an expert on polymer coatings and assistant professor in the Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, has been selected for the prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Career award.

The award, among the most sought-after for up-and-coming scholars, recognizes “creative, integrative and effective research and educational plans.” The accolade comes with a $400,000 grant, which Gupta plans to use to “push the boundaries of my current work.”

“I am delighted and proud that Malancha has received this prestigious award, which recognizes both her scholarly accomplishments and potential for future scholarship,” said Steven Nutt, department chair. “She has demonstrated an exceptional talent set, attracting funding for her growing lab, recruiting outstanding students for her group and for the department, and publishing her groundbreaking work in top scientific journals.”

Gupta’s research focuses on the challenge of both creating porous polymer materials and affixing them to other such materials. Placing porous materials on porous materials creates a double-filtration system that can be employed for water purification and biomedical sensors that screen for disease, among many other uses.

“If you have a filter that works to a certain degree, we can add another layer of filtration and make it work even more efficiently,” she said.

Gupta and her team of PhD students will use a portion of the NSF funding to explore how changes in temperature, pressure and other variables impact the size and function of the polymer pores. In addition, they plan to teach local K-12 public school students about science, technology, engineering and mathematics and porous materials. Specifically, they hope to use coffee filters for hands-on demonstrations and training.

Gupta has conducted polymer coatings research for more than a decade. As a PhD engineering student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she worked with Professor Karen Gleason. Together, they explored how different pressures and temperatures could affect the uniformity of fluoropolymer coatings, which, like Teflon, is water repellent and nonstick.

After graduating with her doctorate in 2007, Gupta spent two years at Harvard University as a postdoctoral researcher in the chemistry department, where she worked under the guidance of Professor George Whitesides. In 2009, she joined USC.

Along the way, Gupta has contributed to research that has resulted in more environmentally sound ways to apply polymers. Traditionally, the plastic-like substances are transformed into liquids or sprays and applied to materials, which creates organic waste. By contrast, Gupta heats chemicals to turn them into vapors, or gases, which are adsorbed onto materials under a vacuum system — meaning the process produces little if any waste.

Last year, Gupta won the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund’s Doctoral New Investigator award for her work with applying polymers onto ionic liquids. She is using the grant to study how to combine polymers with liquids to create composite thin films for alternative energy applications.

A native of New York, Gupta grew up with a love of chemistry and math. The daughter of a civil engineer father, she was exposed to and interested in engineering at an early age. Gupta studied chemical engineering at the Cooper Union on a full-tuition scholarship.

At USC, she said she’s enjoyed working with and teaching talented undergraduate and graduate students, as well as Los Angeles’ many cultural offerings.

“I love USC,” Gupta said. “I feel lucky to be here.”

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