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Kevin Nixon (third from left) with his trophy at the DuPont GOLD Seminar Competition.
Kevin Nixon earned the top prize after giving a 20-minute presentation geared toward synthesizing star polymers. | Image: Courtesy of Kevin Nixon

Doctoral candidate Kevin Nixon won first place at the DuPont Growth Opportunities Leading in Diversity (GOLD) Seminar Competition for his presentation about his work at Texas A&M University focused on the synthesis and characterization of star poly and ionic liquids (PILs).

The GOLD program supports DuPont's commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. According to the organization, it does this by exposing doctoral and post-doctoral scientists to science and innovation at DuPont, expanding DuPont's recruiting efforts to strengthen workforce diversity and supporting the pipeline of graduate students from underrepresented groups through mentoring and professional development.

Nixon, a student in the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering at Texas A&M, emphasizes that his work in the lab is more geared toward the chemistry side of chemical engineering — handling synthetic chemistry and synthesizing new polymers. For the competition, Nixon highlighted some of the specific research he has been doing as he pursues his Ph.D.

Most polymers the students in the lab see are linear and look like cooked spaghetti strings. Nixon has worked on changing the architecture, synthesizing star polymers and seeing how that architecture could help benefit some of the properties.

"Sometimes it's hard to see your work for what it is because you work on it and other people recognize it. It makes you step back and say, ‘I should be more proud of what I've done and acknowledge what it means,’" Nixon said.

The competition, featuring 13 presenters from around the country, was hosted as part of the 2022 National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers conference in Orlando, Florida. Selected participants were required to give a 20-minute oral presentation on their research and its impact on developing a sustainable future in the chemical industry, in alignment with the theme "Making a Difference for a Sustainable Future."

The judges at the competition evaluated the presenters based on their technical skills, understanding of the broader technical field and ability to extrapolate their work to real-world commercial applications.

"He's pretty calm and a really good team player," said Dr. Yossef Elabd, vice chancellor for research. "He's good at receiving advice. He's good at helping other people around him and always has a smile on his face."

Nixon works in a lab at Texas A&M under the direction of Elabd in the chemical engineering department. The group under him works to design and synthesize polymers for the advancement of electrochemical energy devices such as batteries, fuel cells and capacitors.

"My research, which I presented during the competition, focuses on the synthesis and characterization of star PILs,” Nixon said. "They are defined as compounds completely composed of ions with a melting point below 100 C and are used for electrochemical energy devices such as batteries, fuel cells and capacitors. My work aims to understand the polymerization kinetics of synthesizing uniform star PILs and how the star polymer architecture affects polymer performance."

Nixon’s work has also been recognized with second place in the best poster award at the 2022 Texas A&M Polymer Technology Industrial Consortium, and he received an honorable mention for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship in 2019.

"When you are working in a bubble working, you don't know where you stand in the broader community. When you do get an opportunity to present your work to a broad community, you gain a better understanding of how good your work is and how well you can communicate that work, Elabd said. “I saw the quality of his work and the way he was communicating. I said to myself, he’s going to get in and when he gets in, he’s going to win and that’s what he did.”