When Ryan Poling-Skutvik enrolled at the University of Houston in 2013 to pursue a doctorate in Chemical Engineering, he did so because of the school's proximity to industry, not realizing that the experience would open him up to another interest – research.
“I started grad school thinking I would go into industry, which was a lot of why I was attracted to the University of Houston,” he said. “Once I joined Houston, I began doing research with Jacinta C. Conrad and Ramanan Krishnamoorti, and I fell in love with it. I'm kind of the opposite of a lot of students.”
After two years as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania's Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering with Dr. Chinedum Osuji, Poling-Skutvik has been offered a tenure track position at the University of Rhode Island. The position will give him an opportunity to continue his research and to teach.
“The reason I really liked Rhode Island is that it balanced teaching and research really nicely,” he said. “I enjoy both areas. I enjoy research as a focus, but I do really like teaching. The reason I like academia a lot is the ability to create and transfer knowledge. Both research and teaching serve as different paths to accomplish that goal."
Poling-Skutvik has four core research focuses – complex fluids, nanocomposites, polymer physics and transport processes. He pointed to items like hair gel, plastics and toothpaste as the sort of everyday “squishy” things that he studies.
“My research is broadly defined as soft matter,” he said. “It's the study of how squishy things move. There's a lot of different components to that. A lot of what I study is the dynamics of materials from the nano-scale to the micro-scale.”
Poling-Skutvik noted that if you can understand these items at a nano-scale, you can control their properties for different applications.
“We want to understand how you can design those materials on a nano-scale, to give us what we need,” he said. “A lot of what I study is the physics to how these materials work on a nano-scale, and you can apply that to a lot of fields.”
His interest in research burgeoned at the University of Houston, Poling-Skutvik said, partially because of the school and the city's connection to the industries in the immediate area.
“I think Houston as a city gives you a lot of understanding why engineering, and specifically chemical engineering, is important for modern life,” he said. “At Houston, we do very high quality research and we are held to high standards, and we can punch above our weight as a department. That was aspirational.”
Throughout his years at U of H, Poling-Skutvik said he was pushed to excel by Dr. Conrad, Dr. Krishnamoorti and others. He added that Dr. Jeremy Palmer, the Ernest J. and Barbara M. Henley Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, was also vital for his work with simulations.
“One thing that really shaped me coming through Houston was the ability to collaborate and interface with different professors,” he said. “I was exposed to a wide variety of different projects and different professors. That's something that doesn't exist in a lot of departments. Both of my advisers were incredibly supportive and helped frame my view of research.”