From Panama to Chicago: one student’s dream to make real-world impact fuels next-gen materials science

Born in the small Panamanian city of Santiago, Carlos Medina Jimenez knew from an early age that in order to become the type of engineer he wanted, he’d need to journey far from home. That dream led him 2,400 miles north to the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME), where he’s now tapping into one of engineering’s most mercurial and sought-after materials—zwitterionic polymers.

Its name drawn from the German word for two (Zwei), zwitterionic polymers are a type of polyelectrolyte, or charged polymer, that are unique for their ability to hold both a positive and negative charge in each piece of their molecular chain. That attribute makes the polymers particularly effective at repelling unwanted microbial organisms—a helpful feature for several industries that rely on anti-fouling technology. Potential applications include bacteria-resistant coatings for biomedical implants, dirt-repelling coatings for water desalination membranes, or hull coatings on marine vessels.

Medina, a fourth-year PhD student mentored by Professor Matthew Tirrell, was turned onto zwitterionic polymers when he joined Pritzker Molecular Engineering. To him, the material presents a tempting intellectual challenge, one that—if he can solve it—might unlock profoundly beneficial technologies for society at large.

“I’m interested in many branches of engineering, but the main throughline in all my work is a desire to improve the world,” said Medina. “These materials have huge potential—imagine a catheter that never causes an infection or water filters that never need cleaning. There are so many applications. The challenge is figuring out how exactly these polymers work, which we hope to do in the near future.”

Medina’s current project aims to illuminate the core mechanisms behind zwitterionic polymers’ uncanny attributes. He and his colleagues are studying various forms of cysteine-based chemistries, developing new techniques to stabilize the polymer chains, which tend to snap back on each other and become difficult to manage.

“This particular branch of polymer science benefits greatly from our school structure—it’s an interwoven population with vastly different specialties,” said Medina. “That structure allows you to learn about and apply techniques that would have been off-limits elsewhere.”

PME’s interdisciplinary philosophy offers unique opportunities for students. When Medina first joined PME, he had the option to work on immunotherapies or quantum information technologies even though he majored in materials science.

That flexibility is something he often discusses with potential students, with whom he interfaces regularly through mentorship activities, educational outreach events like Noche de Ciencias, and as the president of the University of Chicago’s branch of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE).

“Coming to PME is like beginning the next chapter of your career, regardless of your background,” said Medina. “You’ll learn all the skills you need to move forward successfully.”

Click here for more information on the Molecular Engineering PhD and PME’s other world-class programs.