Q&A with Dr. Carin A. Helfer

Aug. 5, 2019
Dr. Carin A. Helfer, Research Assistant Professor

Carin A. Helfer is a Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering at The Ohio State University. She received a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Case Western Reserve University. After college, she was a research tire compounder at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio. She left Goodyear to pursue a Ph.D. in Polymer Science at The University of Akron, and her graduate studies involved fluorescence spectroscopy and computer simulations to investigate the conformations of profisetinidin dimers, which are biomaterials and a class of condensed tannins. During her postdoctoral studies at The University of Akron, Carin used coarse-grain modeling to study the conformations of synthetic polymers. At The University of Akron, she also held positions focused on science education outreach to middle and high school students and as a Research Scientist in Biomedical Engineering before joining Professor Judit Puskas’ laboratory as a Research Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. In her current position, she is interested in understanding structure-property relationships of synthetic polymers and biopolymers, in particular, natural rubber, with a focus on sustainability and medical applications, including targeted delivery of medicines from polymers for breast cancer treatment. 

1. What is your research focus?

My research focuses on polymers, specifically on polymer characterization to understand the relationship between molecular structure and properties. Although polymers include plastics and rubber, our lab is mainly interested in rubber. A current project investigates the dynamics of polymers with different molecular structures. To create these different polymer structures, we are using a new method of “green” polymerization (environmentally friendly) that was developed in the Puskas laboratory. Information that we gain on the behavior of these different polymer structures can lead to new technologies. Another project involves using polymers for targeted delivery of drugs for breast cancer. Lower doses of medicine can be used with targeted delivery, which could reduce the side effects associated with current cancer treatments.

2. What initially got you interested in pursuing this area of research?

My first position as a Chemical Engineer out of college was as a research tire compounder at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, but I had limited knowledge of polymers. The lack of knowledge motivated me to start taking classes at The University of Akron in Polymer Science. After two classes, I became interested to learn more and decided to quit my job to pursue a Ph.D. My interest in polymers for medical applications comes from my initial career choices in high school, before choosing Chemical Engineering, which were in the medical professions.

3. What drew you to the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Ohio State? (maybe research opportunities or opportunities beyond research, maybe previous experience, etc). 

The first research project of the department that I learned about was the alternate rubber crops by Dr. Katrina Cornish. I find the idea of a natural rubber source from dandelions extremely fascinating. Having started my career at Goodyear, I worked with natural rubber before truly understanding this biopolymer. Although scientists have made many, many synthetic polymers, no man-made polymer matches the outstanding properties of natural rubber from the main commercial source, which is Hevea brasiliensis(the Brazilian rubber tree). More recently, I have learned of the wide variety of research projects in the department and look forward to learning more with possible future collaborations. In addition, I am very interested in sustainability and well-aware of the issues of polymer waste and its negative impact. The department’s focus on sustainability and a possibility of being involved in solutions to material waste problems, is exciting.

4. What are you most looking forward to in this position? (research partnerships, fellow faculty, grad/undergrad students, etc).

First, I am looking forward to settling into our new lab space and continuing current projects with our postdoc and graduate students arriving this fall. Also, I look forward to all the new opportunities available to me as a member of the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering.

5. What are your goals for the future/what do you hope to accomplish in this position?

I hope to further understand polymer-structure relationships, specifically natural rubber and other biopolymers, with this knowledge translating to new technologies. Regarding courses, I plan to assist Dr. Judit Puskas in creating a fully online version of her Introduction to Bio-based Polymerscourse, which will allow us to educate many more students about polymers and their unique properties.