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Polymer Chemist Finds A&S 'Great Fit' for His Work

Neil Ayres, assistant professor of chemistry, is focused on research embracing the cutting edge of technology.

Date: 8/25/2008
By: Britt Kennerly
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Melanie Cannon
Polymer chemist Neil Ayres never has to look far for inspiration and motivation.

The world, it appears, is a laboratory rife with research opportunities in this booming area of focus.

"Polymers are everywhere!" says Ayres, who recently joined the Department of Chemistry as an assistant professor.

"From the commodity polymers like foams, plastics, personal care products, etc., to the cutting edge of technology. Remember that more than 50 percent of all chemists and chemical engineers go into polymer-related fields."

Neil Ayres, assistant professor of chemistry


The specific areas Ayres is focused on are "trying to improve materials and technology in medical applications and therapy, to improve the compatibility of implants, helping prevent infections, and improving diagnostic devices, not by really inventing new materials but by improving the performance and efficacy of existing ones," he says.

"Now, we might not be there yet, but the great thing about this university is that there are the people here to help ask the right questions and use the right tools. That's half the battle in research what questions are we asking? Is it relevant to the problem; are they the important questions?"

Ayres, whose hometown is Coventry, West Midlands, England, started asking such questions as a high-schooler interested in chemistry.

"Chemistry allows you to see the world around you and know how, and why things work, it gives you a little deeper understanding and pushes your horizons out," says Ayres, who earned his undergraduate degree and PhD at the University of Warwick in Coventry.

"I became fully interested in pursuing it as a career during my PhD studies when I saw what was being done at the cutting edge of the field, and how much I enjoyed it it was something I wanted to be part of, and I think teaching is a natural extension of that. It progresses to the stage where you want to pass on the knowledge you've learned so you can share your findings and passion of the subject with others."

Between 2003 and 2008, Ayres held postdoctoral positions at the University of Southern Mississippi, the University of Akron and the University of Utah.

"The initial move to the States was motivated by several factors, partly because of the number of schools and the research groups over here, and partly because I wanted to use my degrees to see some of the world and do it having to the chance to do a job I enjoy so much," he says.

And his move to McMicken College of Arts and Sciences is a natural progression.

"The chemistry department at Cincinnati has a great reputation with some really world class faculty, and the opportunity to join them was exciting," says Ayres.

Add to that all the other things Ayres was looking for from a university were here strong chemical and materials engineering, increasing biomedical engineering and pharmaceutical science and medical sciences and "essentially, it was clear that Cincinnati would be a great fit for me," says Ayres, who's looking forward to tailgating, UC football and finding out more about the city.

"And thankfully, the department thought I'd be a good fit for the school."

As part of that fit, Ayres is pleased with the department's emphasis on research experience for undergraduates, REU. He has given lectures on "living" polymerizations to an REU class in the past, as well as supervised REU projects. The REU system is a vital part of any department, he says. That's "partly for the exposure it gives the department to a pool of prospective students, but most importantly for giving undergraduates that experience of what a PhD entails, the effort required to do it and the benefits that come from it," he notes. "I think it's a hugely rewarding enterprise for all the participants undergraduates, the student mentors and the faculty."

Who inspires him? The late Dr. Linus Pauling, for one.

"Pauling never stopped working, and never settled in one area, he was always pushing the boundaries of his imagination and intellect, I think we can learn from that ethos," Ayres says.

"There's a great quote from him giving advice to students: 'When an old and distinguished person speaks to you, listen to him carefully and with respect but do not believe him. Never put trust in anything except your own intellect. Your elder, no matter whether he has gray hair, or lost his hair, no matter whether he is a Nobel Laureate, may be wrong. The world progresses, year-by-year, century-by-century, as members of the younger generation find out what was wrong among the things their elders said. So you must always be skeptical always think for yourself. 

"There are of course exceptional circumstances: When you are taking an examination, it is smart to answer the questions not by what you think is right, but rather what you think the professor thinks is right."

Pauling's quote is full of good advice, Ayres says.

"Interestingly though, if you show that for a talk, more professors laugh than students," he adds.

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