Allegheny College Student Earns Honors at American Chemical Society National Meeting

As a first-year student, Max Steffen stepped forward to learn more when Allegheny College chemistry professor Ryan Van Horn mentioned a research project on polymers.

It’s a step that eventually took Steffen, now a rising junior, all the way to San Francisco. That’s where he earned third-place honors for his poster presentation at the American Chemical Society’s Undergraduate Research in Polymer Science Symposium, part of the organization’s national meeting and exposition in April. The title of Steffen’s poster was Isothermal Crystallization Analysis of PEO-b-PCL with Larger WPEO or WPCL.

After initial conversations with Van Horn about the polymer project, Steffen began to conduct research in the professor’s lab in spring 2016. Van Horn then invited Steffen to continue the research on campus that summer.

“So I stayed over the summer, and the project that I worked on was part of what I presented in San Francisco,” said Steffen, a biochemistry major and psychology minor from Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.

In simple terms, a polymer is a chemical compound where many repeating molecules bond together to form large chains. Steffen’s project investigated a unique polymer with applications in better understanding drug delivery in the body and improving devices such as contact lenses and knee and hip replacements.

This specific polymer is biodegradable, biocompatible and amphiphilic (composed of “water-loving” and “water-hating” parts). The research looked at the impact of temperature, specifically cooling the polymer to sub-room temperatures.

Steffen is quick to point out that the research was a group effort. Three other students who work in Van Horn’s lab also attended the conference in San Francisco.

“We all have separate projects, but we all talk about them,” Steffen said. “And when things aren’t working, we’re there for each other. We can work through it all together — especially Dr. Van Horn. He’s made my Allegheny experience just great.”

Van Horn encouraged his students to submit proposals for the conference, where he also led a talk. “We got some really great results and that’s why we went to the conference,” Steffen said.

Steffen showed off his poster alongside hundreds of other student presenters. The conference opened a door for Steffen to connect with polymer experts who stopped by to ask questions about his work, spawning ideas for future research including his Senior Comprehensive Project.

“It’s all going to fit in and flow together,” Steffen said of what he learned in San Francisco.

In the long term, Steffen plans to attend medical school and complete a residency in orthopedic surgery and a fellowship in orthopedic traumatology. For now, he’s spending the summer interning in the healthcare field. Steffen will return to Allegheny — and Van Horn’s lab — in the fall.

“I would have never thought coming here that I would go to a poster session in California,” Steffen said. “It was a really cool opportunity and experience.”

And he’s already looking forward to another adventure: next spring’s American Chemical Society meeting in Boston.