By Jessica Roulhac
For Professor of Textile Engineering Philip Bradford ’05, ’07, ’10, one program helped to seal the deal for applying to NC State: the Summer Textile Exploration Program (STEP). Today, he highlights STEP in his role as director of the textile engineering program in the Wilson College of Textiles. The program can be a game-changer for high school students.
From the Senior Design labs to the Textile Protection and Comfort Center (TPACC), Bradford knows that once students are on campus, it will be hard to walk away. For Bradford, the program made it that much easier to decide that his next step would be applying to NC State.
“When I talk to students at the recruiting events we have, I always encourage them to [also] attend STEP because it’s going to give them the experience that’s 10 times better than just coming to an open house.”
STEP started something special in Bradford’s NC State journey. He has earned each of his degrees from the university. Bradford has a bachelor’s degree in textile engineering. He has a dual master’s degree in textile engineering and materials science and engineering. He received his doctorate in materials science and engineering.
Staying close to home
A Wake Forest, North Carolina, native, Bradford realized that he wanted to become an engineer during his middle school and high school years. He also knew that NC State was the best school for this pursuit.
After attending STEP, he kept in touch with the university. Nearly a year later, NC State accepted Bradford as a student, and he soon began the Centennial Scholarship application process. To his delight, the committee awarded him the scholarship.
“I just thought ‘wow,’ the ability to come here and be a student …” he says. “To obtain a unique degree and get to work with those companies that I thought were unique anyway would be a really amazing opportunity.”
During his time as an undergraduate student, Bradford recalls making great friends — and memories. He explored Oxford, England, for six weeks during a summer study abroad experience. He was also a part of the Tompkins Textile Student Council, the Textile Engineering Society, and Phi Psi Textile Fraternity. Bradford met his wife at a Phi Psi event hosted by NC State.
One of his most career-guiding experiences was an internship with 3TEX, Inc. The company, which no longer exists, made fabrics for composite materials. For Bradford, the role sparked his interest in a field that he still loves today. His experience during the internship included working on a project that would help fund his master’s program.
A partnership and a new path
During his time at 3TEX, Bradford received wisdom from his mentor about pursuing a doctorate. As he was finishing his dual degree program, Bradford took note that a world-leading professor in the area of composite materials was coming to the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at NC State.
So, he sent an email to Professor Yuntian Zhu, now a Distinguished Professor Emeritus. When Bradford asked if he could join Zhu as a doctoral student, Zhu agreed.
“I helped him set up his lab, which was a very valuable experience for me,” Bradford says. “It almost [gave] me a taste for what it would be like to be a new faculty member because he was brand new to the world of faculty, and I was his first student and only student for approximately 18 months.”
The new opportunity had Bradford wondering if being a faculty member was in his future. To his surprise, the role was closer than he imagined.
When a professor’s retirement led to a faculty search, Bradford applied and interviewed for the role. A few days after Bradford passed his Ph.D. defense, he learned that the committee had selected him for the position.
The transition from being a doctoral student to a faculty member was a quick one. For a while — and even at times now — Bradford can be misidentified as a student. His initial challenge was that he was sitting in the classroom as a student not too long ago.
“[My challenge] was more confidence in knowing that I’d reviewed the material enough and know my teaching content to be good enough to the extent that I can teach it confidently and the students can see me as an authority figure,” he says.
His peers, once his professors, helped to provide mentorship while Bradford navigated the new role. Eleven years as a faculty member, and today Bradford’s research has garnered more attention. He has received around $4 million in funding since he began as a faculty member.
Carbon nanotubes: Now you see them
The Bradford Research Group has a big focus on a small material: carbon nanotubes. Typically, they are small in diameter, and the length is short. You can only see them under a microscope. In Bradford’s group, students are creating a version that is much longer. Although the carbon nanotubes are still tiny, you can now see them without a microscope.
For the world of textiles, this upgrade in length allows researchers to use carbon nanotubes as they would other nonwoven fabrics. The applications range from filtration solutions to smart textiles.
“That uniqueness has spurred a lot of my research grants,” Bradford says.
Bradford has one student applying the yarn-like properties into knitted shirts and wristbands to provide the same biometrics as an EKG — without the sticky residue.
There’s so much more to share about the work happening in the college, and Bradford is excited to see that others are starting to take notice. He’s also thrilled to see the evolution of the Senior Design program. Students experience the benefits of working with industry-leading companies. Companies also comment on the preparedness of students.
Bradford is a proud alumnus, and he enjoys equipping students to become better researchers — and problem-solvers. Upon graduation, they will have plenty of places to make a difference.
“People don’t realize the breadth of the textile industry,” Bradford says. “There are thousands of companies trying to solve textile-related challenges.”