Dr. Kathryn (Katie) O’Harra, an assistant professor and chemical engineer spearheading the Engineering Positive and Intentional Change (EPIC) Scholars Program, has been selected by The University of Alabama Graduate School as the recipient of the 2022 Outstanding Dissertation Award. O’Harra received the honor for her work entitled, “Molecular Design of High-Performance Imidazolium Ionenes as Gas Separation Membranes and 3D Printing Materials.” The Outstanding Dissertation Award is one of UA’s premier graduate student awards.
O’Harra, who completed her B.S., M.S., and PhD degrees in chemical engineering (ChE) from the University of Alabama alongside a B.A. in dance with a mathematics minor, focused her research on the design and synthesis of new polymers for advanced engineering applications to compose the prize-winning dissertation.
O’Harra found research to be a remarkably creative application of her technical skills, and her interest in polymers began but flourished late in her undergraduate career after she was exposed to polymeric materials in an upper-level ChE elective. “I didn’t start working in a research lab until my senior year of undergrad,” O’Harra said. Polymers in modern times are ubiquitous across many areas of our lives. “I grew to be very fascinated by the sophistication of polymer engineering and design…polymers are something that people interact with daily,” O’Harra said. “We’re wearing them, we eat them all the time… We’re sitting in chairs [made from them], we have plenty of biopolymers in our makeup, and these kinds of things.”
Her research projects under the guidance of research advisor, Professor Jason E. Bara, began to take on a breadth that allowed for a hybridization of science and creativity. “I was really fascinated in the ways that you could intricately design functionality and features into these materials at the very early stages [the design or preparation of monomers, the precursor to polymers] and create really interesting, applicable, high-performing materials,” O’Harra said. Dr. O’Harra is especially interested in exploring polymer applications in separations and other advanced engineering processes, which are environmentally and energetically favorable.
As Dr. O’Harra worked in the lab on designing and synthesizing these monomer building blocks, these blocks would eventually be linked together to form ionic (charged) groups embedded within longer-chain, tailored polymers. She would also apply and test these novel materials to evaluate performance in desired applications – and sometimes, discover new utility in the process. “So, somewhat accidentally, we came across self-healing polymers and some other materials that were not originally the design or focus of my research,” O’Harra said. “This project and that project, which once seemed disparate, came together in an interesting way to [conceive an entirely] new idea.” These serendipitous connections inspired several patent applications and over 20 peer reviewed journal articles throughout her graduate pursuits.
Dr. O’Harra plans on transferring her passion for critical and creative scholarship and what she has learned in the research lab to her students in the classroom. A discussion on the relevance of polymers or other macromolecules can be adapted to fit a transdisciplinary curriculum, from core engineering courses to electives like The Chemistry of Baking and Visual Art Media and Science that O’Harra teaches in the Honors College. “So many of these things are part of our lives every day,” O’Harra said. “Excitedly communicating [the broader impacts of engineering] or scientific engagement related to [relevant] materials science is something I hope to continue to promote as an educator, scholar, and researcher.”