(November 5, 2019) Chemistry graduate student Chengzhe Gao has received the 2019 Eastman Chemical Company Fellowship. The Fellowship was established to assist outstanding students in their research and Chengzhe will receive a $5,000 stipend to help fund his dissertation project.

 In Prof. Kevin Edgar’s lab in the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials, Chengzhe has been working on creating analogs of polysaccharides that are crucial to all vertebrate life, called glycosaminoglycans. His work can illuminate how natural glycosaminoglycans govern critical life processes like blood clotting and development of the central nervous system, and can create analogs that may be able to medically intervene in case of malfunction of those systems. His work on new ways to make sulfated glycosaminoglycan analogs may have biomedical applications, specifically in anti-coagulants. Blood thinners currently on the market may cause excessive bleeding, or may have to be administered constantly, he says, and can put patients at a risk of bleeding out from a simple cut. Glycosaminoglycan analogs may be able to prevent clot formation, for a much longer period of time from a single dose, without causing excessive bleeding.

His work on pharmaceuticals builds upon his undergraduate work: Chengzhe earned a Bachelor of Science in pharmaceutical science from China Pharmaceutical University in Nanjing in 2013. He landed at Virginia Tech while looking at polymer chemistry schools for a Ph.D. A friend had told him about the work Prof. Edgar was doing in Natural Resources, but it wasn’t until after he began thinking seriously about his work and looking for an adviser that he realized he wanted to work with renewable resources.

“Almost all the materials are [based on] petroleum. Not only is the cost of petroleum getting higher and higher, but the source is becoming rarer and rarer. After 100 years, what are our children and grandchildren going to use? That’s the main reason I’m interested in developing renewable and sustainable materials.”

The Edgar lab has been working on a different source for polymers: plants. Polysaccharide derivatives, like the ones Chengzhe is working on, are based on natural polysaccharides (chains of sugars) which comprise much of the weight of plants. Chengzhe works with polysaccharides that come from trees. He hopes that as the research using polysaccharides improves, more people will switch to the greener source and away from the petroleum-based materials. “We need to plan for the future,” he says.

His dedication to sustainability goes even one step further than even his group’s: to the use of greener reagents. Specifically, he is trying to use water as a solvent to get away from the organic solvents one typically finds in the lab. This isn’t easy, as the organic solvents, though some may be toxic, work better. Nevertheless, Chengzhe will keep trying. He says he finds inspiration from activists such as Greta Thunberg, the Swedish 16-year-old environmental activist who has made headlines for starting the international movement “School Strike for the Climate” that protests climate change. The Eastman award, he says, also has inspired him to keep going.

“Previously, people did not realize [sustainability] was an issue. When all of the people realize this is an issue, we can more easily find a solution. I’m quite proud of my research, and it feels cool to be recognized. Not many people are interested in this type of research, so [receiving] this award is encouragement to continue.”

The award is part of Eastman Chemical Company's Fellowship Program, which aims to identify exemplary students, leverage University research efforts, and build long term relationships between the company and graduate programs. The Advanced Materials Technology Division of Eastman has been a proud sponsor of Virginia Tech for many years, and Chengzhe continues the tradition of excellence in this prestigious fellowship program.

“Chengzhe has grown tremendously in his time at Virginia Tech," wrote his advisor Prof. Edgar. "His efforts, the support of his labmates, and the guidance of his committee have helped him to develop a confident manner, very capable communication skills, and have further honed what were already strong scientific skills. I could not be more proud of what Chengzhe has achieved, and of Virginia Tech for how it has helped him grow. He will go out and have a strong positive impact wherever he goes, always reflecting well on Virginia Tech."

Congratulations Chengzhe!