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Frank Bates, CEMS

New regents professor Frank Bates is one of the best polymer scientists in the world.

A material success

From walk-on graduate student to Regents Professor, Frank Bates has set the standard in his profession

By Deane Morrison

July 20, 2007

He was fresh out of college, and the one thing Frank Bates knew was that he didn't want to stay a professional truck driver for the rest of his life. The Queens, N.Y., native had just earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics from SUNY-Albany but couldn't see himself as a mathematician. So he drove his truck to MIT in Cambridge, Mass., and walked straight into the chemical engineering building. Within days, he was accepted as a graduate student there. From these unlikely beginnings sprang a career as a standout professor in the University of Minnesota's Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, consistently ranked among the nation's top three in chemical engineering. This summer, Bates and four other professors joined the roster of regents professors, the U's highest faculty rank. (See box, below right.) "It's very gratifying and a little intimidating," says Bates of his new position. As head since 1999 of a powerhouse department, he already bears a mantle worn by legendary figures in his field.

New kid on the blocks

Even as a walk-on, Bates excelled in graduate school. After receiving his doctorate from MIT in 1982, he landed a job at one of the country's foremost research institutions: Bell Labs in Murray Hill, N.J. But he felt that a university was the ideal place for him. One day in July 1987 the chance came. Matt Tirrell, then an up-and-coming chemical engineering faculty member at the University of Minnesota, visited Bates at his New Jersey home and casually mentioned that Bates might think about coming to the U. "I decided to come here in a microsecond," says Bates. After arriving in 1989, he proceeded to make a name for himself in the same field as Tirrell: polymers. That word may be unfamiliar, but polymers themselves are everyday materials like plastics and adhesives. On the microscopic scale, they are long chains of repeating chemical units, like beads on a string. Bates's specialty is block co-polymers, which are combinations of different polymer types chemically bonded together, like a string with alternating stretches of red and green beads. Because a single polymer molecule contains so many flexible bonds, it's no wonder polymers tend to coil or ball up in highly complex patterns that have kept many a chemical engineer employed trying to figure out their structure. Bates has synthesized and studied the structures and properties of many block co-polymers, including one so transparent and tough that it may ultimately be used as window material.

"Being wrong is just as important as being right, as long as you can accept it and learn from it," Bates says.

"I like to work on fundamental problems, but also ones with practical applications," explains Bates, whose work has led to 15 issued and pending patents. Other block co-polymers that Bates has made can be used as plastics that bend better in one direction than another. To illustrate, he picks up a thin, square slab of plastic and bends it as if it were rubber. But when he moves his hands to the other two sides of the slab and bends, it resists. A similar material could be made into, say, a plastic bag that doesn't have the same strength in all directions. "Biomedical devices like a balloon catheter might benefit from this," he explains. "Doctors would want it to expand only radially [toward the walls of an artery], not farther down the blood vessel."

Five new regents professors

Five faculty members were named regents professors on June 8, 2007.

Frank Bates, chemical engineering and materials science, Institute of Technology

Richard Leppert, cultural studies and comparative literature, College of Liberal Arts

Elaine Tyler May, American studies and history, College of Liberal Arts

Matt McGue, psychology, College of Liberal Arts

Peter Reich, forest resources, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences

Their appointments bring the total number of regents professors to 25, en route to 30 by 2010. Currently, each receives a salary stipend of $20,000 per year and an additional $30,000 research stipend. See the news release on their selection for more information.

Another area where Bates and his students have broken ground is in the design of microscopic hollow balls of block co-polymers that are stable in the face of changing temperature and chemical environments. Such "vesicles," if put in the bloodstream, have potential as drug-delivery systems. Or, says Bates, one might put nontoxic fluorescent dyes in the wall of the vesicle. Dyes that emit light in the near-infrared part of the spectrum are ideal because such light penetrates tissue about 100 times better than visual light. If, for example, such vesicles can be made to attach to cancer cells, the light will signal where cancer cells are hiding. "Then, if a surgeon wants to see if a tumor has metastasized to the lymph nodes, he or she can cut out only the affected nodes," Bates says. Bates has also synthesized block co-polymers that, when added to epoxy resin, make the epoxy tougher and less brittle. The material could be used in epoxy coatings on floors, or to coat steel rods in structural concrete so they won't rust if water should penetrate small cracks in the concrete. This work is being commercialized, not just because the material works so well but because it will cost no more than the resin it would replace. "He is currently the leader worldwide" when it comes to block co-polymers, said the late Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, a French physicist and Nobel laureate. Despite all his professional successes, Bates regards his graduate students, especially the 38 who received doctorates under his tutelage, as the source of his greatest pride. But he retains a healthy humility. On a shelf in his office he keeps a breadbox-sized sculpture of marshmallows connected by toothpicks. It reminds him of the time he thought he had figured out the structure of a complex type of block co-polymer. He went home and built the structure with the marshmallows--but it turned out that his ideas were wrong. "Being wrong is just as important as being right, as long as you can accept it and learn from it," he says.