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NC State Professor Emeritus Leaves Legacy of Mentorship, Sustainability and Joy

Professor Sam Hudson shakes hands with graduate student Sonja Salmon

By Mary Giuffrida

Twenty-two years after her time as a graduate student at the Wilson College of Textiles, Sonja Salmon walked back through the doors, this time as a faculty member. She was greeted by Professor Sam Hudson, as well as a box of original samples she had made while working in his research group years before as she earned her Ph.D.

Keeping, and eventually returning, those samples is just one example of the kind, personable and welcoming environment Hudson continues to cultivate through his work as a professor emeritus at the Wilson College. 

“People really just enjoy being around him because they appreciate the way he brings science to you and allows you to understand,” Salmon, now an associate professor with her own research lab, says. 

Young professor Sam Hudson working in a lab

Calling Wilson College Home

Looking back on his career, Hudson says the very first Earth Day, held in 1970, sparked his love for and interest in science. Three years later, he started his first year at NC State, studying both chemistry and textile chemistry.

He continued his journey at the college, returning to earn his Ph.D. in fiber and polymer science. During his time in graduate school, Hudson’s research focused mainly on cellulose, a topic that would lead him to a position as a senior chemist at DuPont de Nemours and Co.’s Pioneering Research Laboratory. 

It was there that Hudson first began working with the material that still fuels his research and innovation today: a fiber-like compound called chitosan, a derivative of chitin, which is found primarily in the hard outer shells of crustaceans.

“At the time, this was considered the second most plentiful renewable resource on earth, but it wasn’t being utilized,” Hudson says. “So that’s what I brought back with me to NC State in ‘87.” 

Six years after starting at DuPont and beginning his work with chitosan, a twist of fate led Hudson back to the college as an assistant professor. 

Professor Sam Hudson and Graduate student Sonja Salmon at her graduation
Professor Emeritus Sam Hudson (left) and Associate Professor Sonja Salmon (right).

“A head hunter had been pestering me for years to go down to Charlotte, and so to get them off my back I said, ‘OK I’ll go spend a Friday talking to you,’” Hudson explains. “I needed a letter of recommendation, so I reached out to my old advisor at the college.” 

Unbeknownst to Hudson, his old advisor was involved in a faculty search for the college. Assuming Hudson was searching for a new job due to his request for a letter of recommendation, his advisor asked Hudson to interview for the position at the college. He would later accept and begin his new position in 1987.

A focus on mentorship

When returning to the college, Hudson used his industry experience and knowledge to make biopolymers, such as spider silk and chitosan, a focus of his research. 

“I independently decided to start focusing on this chitosan material from the shrimp shell, which was still an unknown material,” Hudson says. “I was lucky to have some very able grad students, and each of them just about tripped over something unexpected while doing their research.”

“His legacy is the joy of science.”
-Associate Professor Sonja Salmon

Salmon, who was one of the grad students working with Hudson during this time, credits him with giving her the space to make discoveries on her own, while still guiding her in the ways she needed.

“He somehow always managed to give the right level of guidance and freedom at the same time,” she says. “I got to struggle enough that I felt like I learned, and part of the process of learning is to run into challenges and try to figure it out. It gave me a lot of self-confidence.”

Expanding research

Hudson continued working with chitosan throughout his time at the college, becoming one of the world’s leading experts and introducing the material to a new crop of scientists. 

“Working on projects with him and learning about this very interesting material that he is a world expert in has stayed with me,” Salmon says. “Always in the back of my mind I wanted to get back to this polymer, and now I’ve done that, and it’s still fascinating.” 

Hudson visited conferences all over the world, developed patents and eventually co-founded a company dedicated to bridging the gap between biomaterials and their medical applications. 

“We’re using the chitosan to do gene therapy to the brain, and we’re treating a side effect of Alzheimer’s,” Hudson says.

The company, Karamedica, has also patented a way of decontaminating delicate biomaterials such as chitosan. Their process does not leave behind the residual toxic compounds which usually result from standard techniques. The company is also helping to make strides in sustainability. Because crustacean shells are a waste product from the shrimp and fishing industry, using chitosan as a biomaterial helps to create a circular economy and keep waste out of landfills.

Lasting Legacy

Alongside continuing his research and work with Karamedica, Hudson is enjoying his retirement. He often visits his daughter in Manhattan, and still travels the world attending conferences. He has left and continues to leave a lasting legacy on his students, colleagues and the college as a whole. 

“His legacy is the joy of science,” Salmon says. “To him science is a joyful thing that he loves to share with others. It doesn’t matter if you’re a student, a colleague or a new friend he’s made on his many travels. His joy of science sparks the curiosity to learn — that is his gift to us.”