By Alyson Tuck
Dr. Cassandra Kwon’s career in textiles started with a soda bottle. As a junior at a Raleigh high school, Kwon listened with curiosity while a visiting student ambassador from NC State’s Wilson College of Textiles held up a plastic soda bottle and described how the bottle, made of polymers, was an example of textile science. Kwon, surprised and intrigued by the diversity of the field, considered a career in science for the first time.
Nearly 20 years later, Kwon, a Wilson College of Textiles research assistant professor, has come a long way from thinking about the polymers in a soda bottle. Now working as a researcher in prototype development with NC State’s Textile Protection and Comfort Center (T-PACC), Kwon turns textile science into life-saving solutions. Her journey — as a Wilson College of Textiles undergraduate and graduate student, scholarship recipient and postdoc — provided rich opportunities to transfer knowledge into action and research into innovative products.
As an undergraduate, Kwon found her home in Wilson College of Textiles. She quickly discovered that the study of textiles, and the unique opportunities available at NC State, captivated her interest. She thrived in the visual, hands-on approach to the curriculum, in particular the lab courses. Rather than just learning about cotton from a textbook, she conducted experiments in the Physical Testing Laboratory that taught her about cotton count and what it means to create cotton fibers.
“I love being hands on, so the vast amount of resources that we have at Wilson College of Textiles was extremely advantageous to me,” Kwon said.
Kwon graduated with a degree in textile apparel and technology and a concentration in management. Throughout her undergraduate years, the diverse nature of her courses and her faculty gave Kwon a solid foundation in textile science and the industry. Equally as important, undergraduate opportunities taught her the kind of work she enjoyed: interdisciplinary challenges requiring diverse perspectives to produce tangible, real-world solutions.
Hunger for Innovation
Several internships, textile-related jobs, and a master’s degree abroad later, Kwon found her way back home to NC State. While working in product development sourcing for a large retail department store, she observed a lack of fundamental textile knowledge in the workplace. Kwon missed being surrounded by technical experts and a culture of innovation. In a bold career shift, she applied to the Ph.D. program at NC State’s Wilson College of Textiles.
“I’m always interested in what’s new, what’s exciting, how can we make something better,” Kwon said. “So that drove my ambitions to wanting to come back to school. I knew this would be the perfect platform for me to be able to reach something new. I knew that NC State was where I wanted to be. There’s no better place.”
Luck and networking, Kwon said, brought her into Dr. William Oxenham’s group in the Wilson College of Textiles as a research assistant. She launched into a research project that examined existing techniques and new methods for testing compression in compression hosiery and bandages. Kwon was thrilled with the interdisciplinary project — done in conjunction with faculty in the biomedical engineering department — and with the applied nature of the project.
“It was a complete shift from my work experience to all of a sudden have to look into physiological aspects of the human body,” Kwon said. “But it’s the real world.”
Kwon’s research aimed to help compression hosiery manufacturers understand what they were producing. While medical supply companies were making compression socks for therapeutic treatment, they didn’t really understand the compressive strength of one pair of socks compared to another, and how that might impact their customers. Kwon’s analysis of testing methods, and development of new methods, sought to give manufacturers data on how pressure is applied in their products.
“Data is the most powerful tool you can use to communicate how a product actually works and functions,” Kwon said.
Kwon completed her Ph.D in textile technology management in 2014. As a scholarship recipient, she credits generous donors with giving her the chance to maintain a sharp focus on her graduate research.
Protecting our Heroes
Today, Kwon is living her dream, making innovative products that really matter. At NC State’s Textile Protection and Comfort Center (T-PACC), she and her colleagues create protective clothing for first responders and the military. Safety and comfort are their ultimate goals. They make t-shirts that better repel bodily fluids, uniforms that better protect against hazardous particulates and pants that comfortably allow the bending and kneeling that comes with saving lives.
T-PACC is one of the premiere textile testing facilities in the world, giving Kwon access to tremendous technical resources. Her current project, which she began as a postdoctoral research scholar, is funded by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and strives to make better station wear, or pants and shirts, for emergency medical personnel and firefighters. Kwon conducted extensive research and testing on materials, completed the functional design to get the best ergonomic fit, administered wear trial testing with local first responders and created a final prototype garment to be produced by DHS.
“To see something that I’ve developed from virtually nothing all the way to an actual garment system is something that I immensely enjoy,” Kwon said. “I love what I do now.”
This year Kwon’s NC State journey came full circle: She began teaching Introduction to Fiber Science to undergraduates. Now on the other side of the desk, Kwon strives to be a friendly, approachable resource for her students. After all, it wasn’t long ago that she stood in their shoes.