Forestry PhD Candidate Nicole Tratnik Wins Grand Prize in Excellence in Thermoset Polymer Research Competition

Forestry PhD Candidate Nicole Tratnik Wins Grand Prize in Excellence in Thermoset Polymer Research Competition

Original article by Jennifer Hsu


Nicole Tratnik, a brilliant PhD candidate from Professor Ning Yan’s Lab, has emerged as the Grand Prize Winner in the prestigious Excellence in Thermoset Polymer Research Competition, hosted by the Thermoset Resin Formulators Association. Nicole’s groundbreaking paper titled, Recyclable, self-strengthening starch-based epoxy vitrimer facilitated by exchangeable disulfide bonds, has enhanced the field of thermoset polymers, earning her well-deserved recognition.

The Thermoset Resin Formulators Association, a leading organization in the industry, acknowledged Nicole’s remarkable achievement during the Thermoset Resin Formulators Annual Meeting held in Denver, Colorado. The event, attended by over 120 esteemed professionals and experts, provided Nicole with an opportunity to present her innovative research on Wednesday, May 10.


Nicole’s outstanding work also garnered significant attention at the SPE EAV Plastic in Electric and Autonomous Vehicles Conference in Troy, Michigan back in April. Competing against a pool of talented individuals, Nicole placed 5th in the student poster competition, solidifying her position as a rising star in the field. Her breakthrough ideas and research have already begun to shape the future of thermoset polymers.

Traditionally, the plastics industry has recognized two main types of plastics: thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics offer versatility and ease of recycling, thermosets provide strength and stability for high-performance applications. However, thermosets lack the ability to be reformed once crosslinked, limiting their potential for recycling. Enter vitrimers, a novel category of plastic that combines the strength of thermosets with the reprocessability of thermoplastics through the use of dynamic covalent bonds.

Nicole’s groundbreaking research focused on creating a bio-based vitrimer by combining a starch-based epoxy with a hardener containing dynamic sulfur-sulfur bonds, similar to those found in garlic. The study showcased the tremendous potential of her epoxy material, which could be ground into a powder and reformed multiple times. Astoundingly, the material’s strength exhibited a notable increase during the initial reformation cycles, a phenomenon Nicole attributes to the breakdown of starch granules.

This significant breakthrough has not only earned Nicole the esteemed recognition of the Thermoset Resin Formulators Association but also merited publication in the respected Chemical Engineering Journal, further solidifying her position as a rising star in the field.

Nicole’s remarkable achievements and her research in developing recyclable, self-strengthening starch-based epoxy vitrimers have captivated the plastics industry. Her work paves the way for sustainable and high-performance materials, poised to revolutionize various sectors ranging from automotive and electronics to packaging and construction.

“As Nicole continues her journey to push the boundaries of scientific knowledge, the department eagerly anticipates her next remarkable breakthroughs that will shape our future,” says Professor Ramin Farnood, Chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry.