When Sonya Benson was a doctoral student at Virginia Tech, she might not have expected to be back less than a decade later as a plenary speaker at this week’s Macromolecules Innovation Institute technical conference and review.

“I’ve been to the conference many times as a student,” said Benson, now an associate principal engineer at PepsiCo. “It’s really exciting to be back as an industry professional and share some of the projects I’ve been working on.”

After earning her doctorate from Virginia Tech in 2011, Benson joined Pepsi’s advanced research group. There, she works on food packaging, an emerging area ripe for innovation as advanced manufacturing techniques and smart sensors intersect with growing concerns about sustainability and health.

“Food packaging is a field that we’re starting to develop into a tremendous focus area, so we immediately knew we had to bring her down here,” said Robert Moore, a professor of chemistry in the College of Science and Benson’s doctoral advisor, who also directs the Macromolecules Innovation Institute’s graduate program.

Packaging must meet stringent standards to keep food fresh, and the requirements are unique for each item — hummus, wheat chips, and yogurt, for example, each call for different types of materials and packaging techniques.

Engineers must also consider how food packaging fits into existing manufacturing and distribution networks and how it affects human health and the environment. In her talk, Benson discussed the challenges and opportunities for materials scientists working to balance sustainability, cost, and consumer needs.

For example, Benson was on the team tasked with finding an alternative to a new chip bag that was compostable, but notoriously noisy. By using an adhesive that reduced the bag’s stiffness and dampened the crinkling, the team was able to create a quieter, but still compostable, material.

One of Benson’s first projects at Pepsi exemplified the service-oriented Hokie Spirit. The company’s Food for Good program delivers meals to children in low-income neighborhoods who may not have access to regular nutrition when school is out.

But transportation of fresh foods was a challenge, because Pepsi and the local nonprofits they collaborated with didn’t have an existing infrastructure to deliver food that required refrigeration.

Benson’s team developed a new kind of cooling gel that could keep food cold for 14 hours in the summer heat, allowing them to deliver fresh, healthy meals. Their invention made the Food for Good program more efficient and sustainable, but it also had a broader impact.

“Solving that problem was a technological key to unlock other parts of the business.” Benson said. With the new refrigerant in hand, the company was able to develop and distribute a new product, a chewy bar with a chocolate coating that also needed to be kept cool for transport.

Benson’s scientific skills and team-oriented approach were obvious in her years at Virginia Tech.

“Sonya was one of my favorite students,” Moore said. “She was such a tremendous leader in my group, and her research was outstanding — it has led to what half of my group is working on now. She brought it to life.”

After Benson’s talk, Moore presented her with a fitting gift for a manufacturing-minded alum: a 3-D-printed Hokie Bird.

Other plenary speakers at the conference included scientists and engineers from Dow Chemical Company, Lockheed Martin, the University of Pennsylvania, and NASA’s Langley Research Center.

The conference, which the institute holds every 18 months, was attended by more than 200 registrants, and included talks by faculty on topics from nanoparticle-based cancer treatments to new approaches for 3-D printing. More than 100 students participated in a poster session.

The Macromolecules Innovation Institute, known on campus as MII, brings together about 60 faculty and more than 300 students from three colleges. Established in 2004 as the Macromolecules and Interfaces Institute, MII builds on Virginia Tech’s long-established strength in polymer science to make the university a hub for innovations in advanced manufacturing.

The institute takes a molecules-to-manufacturing approach to materials science, where researchers consider a material’s production from the design of individual molecules to the manufacturing process for the finished product.

MII’s macromolecular science and engineering graduate program is among the 10 best in the country, and active industry outreach helps students transition their interdisciplinary education into the workplace.

“We are reaching into new intersections for polymeric materials, from architecture to food science,” said Tim Long, the institute’s director and a professor of chemistry. “Leading companies are reaching out to partner with Virginia Tech as a result of the new model we’re creating for materials science.”

MII is supported in part by the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science

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