Rodney Priestley, who explores complex materials, has been awarded the 2023 Carl S. Marvel Award for Creative Polymer Chemistry by the American Chemical Society Division of Polymer Chemistry.
The award recognizes “accomplishments and innovations of unusual merit in the field of basic or applied polymer science by younger scientists.” Priestley is known for his work characterizing polymers and soft matter, particularly thin films, colloids and nanocomposites.
Priestley, the Pomeroy and Betty Perry Smith Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering and the Dean of the Graduate School, leads research focused on understanding these materials on the nanoscale. One key area involves studying the glass transition temperature of polymer thin films and nanocomposite materials. At this transition, materials go from more rigid to more flexible, or vice versa. Characterizing these changes, especially in materials made of a mixture of molecules, has applications in understanding materials as ubiquitous as Plexiglas or as specialized as next-generation membranes for fuel cells or batteries.
“Rod Priestley has an unusual talent for discovering phenomena that are not only unexpected — causing the community to reassess its understanding of a particular subject — but also useful,” said Richard Register, the Eugene Higgins Professor of chemical and biological engineering and the director of the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials. “This talent has led Rod to make made pioneering contributions both to fundamental polymer science, and to technologies for creating novel polymer thin films and structured nanoparticles.”
Priestley is the co-founder of four companies, including the start-up AquaPao, which was established in 2021 to commercialize a membrane that uses sunlight to drive the purification of water. Priestley developed the membrane along with Xiaohui Xu, a postdoctoral research fellow in his lab. He is also the co-inventor on 10 patent-pending technologies.
“His work reflects an engineer’s desire to bridge from fundamental understanding to the fabrication of new materials and devices with exceptional function, with applications ranging from water purification to the protection and controlled delivery of pharmaceuticals,” Register said.
Born in Houston, Priestley got his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at Texas Tech University in 2003 and his doctorate at Northwestern University in 2008, where he studied nanoscale physical constraints on polymers. Before joining the Princeton faculty in 2009, Priestley was a postdoctoral fellow at Ecole Superieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles de la Ville de Paris, in France.
Priestley has received numerous previous awards, including the American Chemical Society Macro Letters/Biomacromolecules/Macromolecules Young Investigator Award in 2020 and the American Physical Society Dillon Medal in 2018, which recognizes outstanding research by early-career polymer scientists. He was named to The Root 100 list of most influential African Americans in 2014. Priestley served as Princeton’s vice dean for innovation between 2020 and 2022 and is co-director of the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps Northeast Hub, a consortium designed to foster innovation at Princeton and other regional universities.