TAMS student to present research at world materials science conference

Monday, January 28, 2008

DENTON (UNT), Texas -- While many high school students' experiences with scientific research is limited to what they can accomplish in science labs or for science fairs, Ken Hackenberg has already spent a year working in a university research laboratory, researching plastics that are used to manufacture sutures, stents and drug delivery devices.

As a student at the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science at the University of North Texas, Hackenberg, the son of Marion Goedde-Hackenberg and Wolfgang Hackenberg of Plano, works in UNT's Laboratory of Advanced Polymers and Optimized Materials, studying the properties of polylactides -- biodegradable thermoplastics derived from lactic acid. Because they are nontoxic and biologically compatible with the human body, polylactides are currently used in biomedical applications.

"The work we do in the lab involves modifying these polymers by adding organic materials," Hackenberg said, adding that biodegradable polymers could also be used in dispersal of fertilizer.

Next month, Hackenberg will present his research to a distinguished international group of scientists when he attends POLYCHAR 16-World Forum on Advanced Materials in Lucknow, India. The conference, scheduled for Feb. 17-21, is one of the most prestigious annual conferences in materials science. Hackenberg's research on approaches to improve the properties of polylactides, which he conducted under the supervision of postdoctoral research associate Tea Datashvili, will be presented in a poster session and be eligible for awards.

Hackenberg said he will probably be the youngest person presenting research at POLYCHAR 16, which is primarily attended by university professors and graduate students working in materials science.

"I saw a photo of the presenters from last year, and they all seemed to be 30 or older. I think attending the conference will be fun," he said.

Hackenberg entered the academy in August 2006. TAMS is a two-year residential program at UNT that allows talented students to complete their freshman and sophomore years of college while earning their high school diplomas. Students enroll in the academy following their sophomore year in high school, live in a UNT residence hall and attend UNT classes with college students. After two years, they enroll at UNT or another university to finish their bachelor's degrees.

After learning that UNT faculty members regularly welcome TAMS students into their laboratories, Hackenberg contacted Dr. Witold Brostow, UNT Regents Professor of materials science and engineering and director of the Laboratory of Advanced Polymers and Optimized Materials. He began working in Brostow's lab in January 2007.

"Several of my ancestors were successful physicists, and I have always been interested in that area of science. I found Dr. Brostow's research on the UNT web site and e-mailed him. He invited a few TAMS students to work in the lab," he said.

He added that he's very grateful to Brostow and Datashvili for giving him an individual research project, and to Brostow and Dr. Richard Sinclair, dean of TAMS, for providing funds to send him to POLYCHAR-16.

Between classes at UNT and other activities at TAMS, Hackenberg spends five to 10 hours at the lab. Last summer, he received a stipend from TAMS to work up to 40 hours a week on his research.

Hackenberg attended Clark High School in Plano before entering TAMS. At Clark, he was a member of Learning About Science, Engineering and Research, a science club; and was on the tennis team. He also participated in science fairs.

At TAMS, he is a mentor to first-year academy students and a member of Helping Other People Everywhere, a community service organization.

After graduating from TAMS in May, Hackenberg will attend Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and major in materials science and engineering. He plans to eventually earn a doctoral degree and become a researcher.

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