Illinois I-mark

Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Sing, Charles
Assistant Professor Charles Sing

Charles E. Sing, Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Illinois, has received a 2017 National Science Foundation CAREER Award for his proposal, “Developing the design rules of charge sequence to inform polymer self-assembly.”

The National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development Program’s CAREER Awards are prestigious and competitive awards given to junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholar through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their respective organizations. The program will provide five years of support.

“I am incredibly honored by this award. I think it reflects the exciting ideas and hard work of my students, and I am excited to keep working with them to explore this new area of charged, patterned polymers. I hope we can live up to this recognition and push the field forward,” Sing said.

Dr. Sing aims to enable advances in materials that demand structural precision at the nano-level, such as fuel cell membranes, functional coatings and sensors, and drug delivery vehicles.

His research is inspired by the sophisticated precision of biological systems made from large molecules that specifically and exclusively interact using information encoded in patterns of electrostatic charge. He will investigate whether polymers—long chain-like molecules made of joined molecular units called monomers—that self-organize can be made to behave in a similar way. He and his research group will determine how patterns of electrostatically charged monomers along a polymer molecular chain can be designed to guide the self-organization of molecular structures at the nanometer length scale.

The NSF CAREER award will also support outreach efforts. Sing and his graduate and undergraduate students volunteer with the St. Elmo Brady STEM Academy, which aims to boost interest in STEM among underrepresented minorities. They teach elementary-age students about issues such as sustainability and the lifecycle of plastics and introduce them to interactive computer simulation activities.

Sing joined the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering faculty in 2014. He received his BSE/MS from Case Western Reserve University and his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His postdoctoral work was at Northwestern University’s International Institute for Nanotechnology.

Some outreach-minded folk in chemical engineering have begun a new after-school program, the St. Elmo Brady STEM Academy, hoping to make a difference in the lives of underrepresented minority boys. While programs providing hands-on STEM activities happen fairly frequently at Booker T. Washington STEM Academy (BTW) in Champaign, Illinois, what sets this program apart is its emphasis on minority role models— including the boys’ own fathers.

A student, Dr. Jerrod Henderson and Lonna Edwards measure the voltage of a potato battery.

This unique aspect—the idea of involving fathers—came from a program Dr. Jerrod Henderson, a lecturer in the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department, and Ricky Greer, a specialist in K–12 education, recently created then piloted at the Don Moyer’s Girls’ and Boys’ Club in Champaign.

Regarding the fathers’ involvement: “It had a great impact on the kids and their excitement,” recalls Greer, “and we really enjoyed seeing the fathers get down on their hands and knees and work on the projects with their sons.”

The St. Elmo Brady STEM Academy will run for eight weeks with three sessions a week—one intentionally held on Saturday so the boys’ fathers can attend.

However, while involving fathers is an important aspect, for some young participants, the father might not be in the picture; the second program component involves recruiting Illinois graduate and undergraduate students to mentor the young participants.

The third member of the team, Allante Whitmore, a Ph.D. student in Agricultural & Biological Engineering, indicates that student mentors will also serve as role models to demonstrate that, “Hey, I’m going to college. You can do it too.”

Mentoring was included so each team member could look back and see how important certain people were in helping them get to where they are today.

Left to right: Allante Whitmore, Dr. Jerrod Henderson, and Ricky Greer, the team that created the St. Elmo Brady STEM Academy.
Left to right: Allante Whitmore, Dr. Jerrod Henderson, and Ricky Greer, the team that created the St. Elmo Brady STEM Academy.

A third way the program will incorporate role models is during the activities. While addressing a different topic each week, the team will showcase a multicultural scientist who has contributed to that area, such as the program’s namesake, St. Elmo Brady. This emphasis on African-American scientists who paved the way was added because of the positive role models they can be for students of color.To ensure the program’s success, the program is targeting 4th and 5th grade underrepresented males who are interested in STEM, hoping to get them interested in STEM early.

While the three hope to lure some young men into the STEM pipeline, they admit that one reason they’re doing the program is they just plain love teaching.

Henderson admits that he’s always wanted to teach: “From early on, I knew that I wanted to be a teacher. So I had mentors in my life that pushed me towards, ‘Well, if you want to teach, this is what you’re going to have to do. It was always those mentors that had an outreach component to what they were doing.'”

So like the mentors who helped him, Henderson wants to lend a hand to some youngsters in this community:

“In my community, in the colleges where I attended, that’s the culture. You give back to your community, and I was raised with that. You don’t think twice about it. That’s what you’re supposed to do; you reach back and you help others.”

The team’s personal goals for the program are varied. Greer wants to reach out to young African-American males: “You just have to work, and be that mentor, and show them that it is possible to be successful…And again just having a passion for the community and wanting to uplift the community.”

“I want to expose these young people to STEM,” says Henderson. “But beyond STEM…whatever career path they choose, I feel that they are going to look back and say, ‘I remember when I was in this program, and these people really helped to push me and encourage me.’ And it’ll go a long way. I’m just a proponent of exposure.”

Lecturer Dr. Jerrod Henderson helps a youngster with his potato battery during one of the program's sessions.
Lecturer Dr. Jerrod Henderson helps a youngster with his potato battery during one of the program’s sessions.

Henderson goes on to share how some of the things he was exposed to as a youngster influenced his becoming a chemical engineer:

“I always liked science, for some reason,” he confesses. Maybe it’s because as early as 6th or 7th grade, he was going to engineering conferences. Leaders of his community’s mentoring program said, ‘We’re going to give these kids something to do!’ So they took him and other kids to college open houses and football games—even the Black Engineer of the Year Awards.

Henderson envisions a scenario in which his mentoring program might have that same kind of influence in these youngsters’ lives: “While we might expose them to STEM, they might also get the chance to travel to these conferences that we have talked about. And all of it came about because they were part of a STEM program.”

Story and photographs by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative.

Cookie Settings