The Virginia Tech College of Science has appointed Professor Alan Esker as chair of its Department of Chemistry, taking the helm in August from Jim Tanko, who began his tenure as department chair in 2010.

The Department of Chemistry currently has 13 faculty members who have received the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award for junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholar in education and research. Its researchers collaborate across disciplines to address critical issues, such as developing high-temperature materials that can be 3D printed and used to insulate spacecraft from extreme temperatures and new, high-performance batteries with strong stability.

“What interested me in this position was the privilege of working with the exceptional faculty, staff, students and alumni that are Virginia Tech chemistry and the opportunity to continue evolving our teaching, research and service missions,” said Esker, who begins his tenure as department chair Aug. 10.

Esker is a longtime professor of chemistry, having joined the department in 1999. He also is an affiliated member of the Academy of Integrated Science’s nanoscience program and a core faculty member of the Macromolecules Innovation Institute.

He has broad research interests associated with surfaces and interfaces in synthetic and biopolymers. His publications touch on nanocomposites and nanoparticles for space survivable materials and biomedical imaging, fundamental studies of polymer crystallization, phase separation and wetting in thin films necessary for improving protective and responsive coatings, enzymatic degradation of biomass for biofuels, and studies on the interactions between cellulose, hemicelluloses and lignin as they pertain to the self-assembly of plant cell wall structure.

“Alan has made important contributions toward helping Virginia Tech become nationally renowned for our nanoscience and materials research,” said Sally C. Morton, dean of the College of Science. “He also brings to this job a strong desire to coach people in the department to maximize collaboration and teamwork, foundations of the university’s culture.”

Among his honors are a Virginia Tech Cook Teaching Award in 2006, a 3M Untenured Faculty Award in 2002, and an Omnova Solutions Signature University Award in 2000. In 2003, he received a $500,000 National Science Foundation CAREER Award for early research into polymer stabilized magnetic nanoparticles.

Esker earned his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees, both in chemistry, from the University of Wisconsin in 1991 and 1996, respectively. He then served as a post-doctoral researcher at the Max-Planck Institute for Polymer Research in Germany, as well as a guest scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

On what drew his interest to chemistry as a career, Esker said, “I did not decide on an undergraduate major until my junior year when I took thermodynamics. The merging of mathematics, physics, and chemistry was and remains to this day something I find truly beautiful.”

Tanko has led the department since 2010, after joining Virginia Tech in 1986 as an assistant professor and being promoted to full professor in 1998. His research has focused on kinetics and mechanism, electron transfer reactions, free radicals, and radical ions.

“Jim has made a difference at Virginia Tech with his leadership of the chemistry department,” said Morton. “His efforts to encourage collaboration between chemistry and other College of Science departments as well as other colleges shows that bringing together a variety of disciplines helps make science stronger.”

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