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PCC Alum Wins Prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship

Wilson College of Textiles exterior view

For the 75 percent of American women who color their hair and those professionals who apply that color, the research of Wilson College of Textiles doctoral student Tova Williams (‘14) could have significant personal impact. The National Science Foundation (NSF) thinks so highly of her work and potential that the organization recently awarded her a prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship to continue to improve the ways in which green chemistry principles are incorporated into the molecular design of colorants. Green chemistry includes the replacement of rare, expensive and toxic chemicals with earth-abundant, economical and benign chemicals.

“Transitioning to a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship not only ensures that my graduate education is funded but that my support is uninterrupted until I complete my degree. I believe the fellowship will open doors for me to take advantage of career opportunities in the green chemistry field,” said Williams.

The NSF program is the oldest graduate fellowship of its kind, recognizing outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited institutions in the United States. Past fellows include numerous Nobel Prize winners and members of the National Academy of Sciences.

It was as a chemistry-loving high school student coloring her hair for the first time that Williams became aware of the toxic chemicals used in the development of hair dyes. She brought that passion for science to NC State’s Wilson College of Textiles where she enrolled as polymer and color chemistry major. As an undergraduate, she worked under the mentorship of Harold Freeman, associate dean for research, gained hands-on-experience working for Jeff Krauss in the College’s Pilot Plant, conducted research and interned with manufacturing company American and Efird LLC.

Finding an environment of support and opportunity at the College, Williams decided to stay and pursue her Ph.D. in fiber and polymer science (dye chemistry) with the goal of making dyes safer for the consumer, hair stylist and manufacturer.

The most popular commercial hair dyes are the permanent (oxidative) dyes, which are formed by reacting small dye precursors upon oxidation that generate dyes within the hair fiber that are too large and too hydrophobic to be desorbed.

“Although the genotoxicity of hair dye precursors is an issue of ongoing debate, it is clear that precursors such as p-phenylenediamine (PPD) can cause those in contact with them to develop sensitivities that result in, for example, facial dermatitis,” said Williams. “Specifically, my research focuses on the computer-aided design of sustainable hair dye precursors that can compete with the conventional ones in terms of ease of synthesis and application, range of colors that can be achieved, and high degree of permanence.”

If successful, her research will not only impact the lives of millions of people worldwide who choose to use commercial hair care products to color their hair but also make a significant contribution to the field of green chemistry.

“The synthetic methods I plan to develop can open the door to new ways to impart color to other heat-sensitive and porous materials, such as plastic bottles. The molecular modeling approach to dye design has the potential to motivate others to utilize the same approach. In turn, this will reduce the number and volumes of chemicals needed to conduct synthetic research by substituting a ‘make it and test it’ approach with one involving property prediction followed by synthesis of prototypes,” she said.

Ultimately, Williams would like to work at an international research and development company or in academia to continue to improve the ways in which green chemistry principles are incorporated into the molecular design of colorants. “I believe that a doctorate in fiber and polymer science with a focus in dye chemistry will best prepare me for this type of career,” she said.

In addition to preparing her for a long and productive career, Williams is finding other benefits accompany earning a Ph.D. from the Wilson College of Textiles.

“I am learning a lot about myself and how to be a better problem solver, especially when my research efforts do not go as planned,” she said. “It has been a challenge for me to balance coursework, research and other activities I am involved in such as science outreach. To persevere, I have been leaning heavily on my faith, family, mentors and friends.”

Williams credits the faculty at the Wilson College of Textiles with helping her thrive in the graduate program. “I can recall Dean David Hinks, who was my professor at the time, encouraging me to meet Dr. Harold Freeman. From there, it was history in the making. He became not only my advisor but also my mentor,” she said.

For those undergraduate students considering a graduate degree, Williams offers the following advice: “Carefully consider the programs you are interested in and whether or not they will help prepare you for the career you would like to pursue. It is wise to talk to professors, mentors, and employers to aid in a decision that will have such of a huge impact in your life,” she said.