Paula Hammond: The Possibilities of Polymers

Paula Hammond: The Possibilities of Polymers

Film transcript

Transcription from video produced in August 2012, with interviews conducted in June 2012. Learn more about Paula Hammond and additional resources connected to the film.


You can start with an idea, and it’s just an idea; but when you get into a lab and you begin to put these things together, it becomes real—and that’s incredible.


Chapter 1. Paula Hammond, Ph.D.: Mind and Hand


I’m Paula Hammond. I’m a professor at MIT. I teach in chemical engineering.

I grew up in Detroit, in the northwest side. When my parents first moved there, I would say it was a predominantly white neighborhood. They were the first black family on that block.

When I was growing up, my first few neighbors were fairly diverse. Always the neighborhood was very warm in terms of interactions. But as a child I primarily remember having this backyard that had a cherry tree and a crabapple tree, and being able to, you know, go into the yard and pick up things on the grass. And I tended to tear them apart, look at them, inspect them.

I had a thing with ants at that time . . . examining how they built their mounds . . . actually watching them carry loads of food into the mound. So I really enjoyed examining nature.

My father was a Ph.D. in biochemistry. My mother received her master’s in nursing.

My father, being a biochemist, was very interested in exciting us about chemistry and biology. I had an older and a younger brother, and, uh, my older brother had a chemistry set that we all played with.

We had a Build-a-Heart Christmas gift. (laughs)

My mother provided an ample supply of books while we were growing up. We read at night. My favorite place was the children’s section of the Detroit Public Library, which had wonderful art. And then you would go in, and there’d be these corners where you could read Henry Huggins or, you know, Beatrix Potter books or whatever it is that you were interested in.

My parents were very focused on letting us know we could do anything, and their messages were to apply ourselves, to become the best we can be, and to be creative.

For that reason I felt that I could go in a number of different directions. But when I got to junior year of high school, I got into chemistry class. I was able to see, you know, solutions change color, generate heat with solution, combine two compounds and make a third compound. Being able to transform one thing to another really fascinated me.


Paula was a stellar student and coupled her love of chemistry with acumen in both math and physics. Her chemistry teacher encouraged her to pursue the field of chemical engineering, a specialty that would awaken all three of Paula’s interests.


This was at my high school, which was actually an all-girls high school: Academy of the Sacred Heart. Uh, it was a great place, a very small school. I was able to be very expressive without feeling any inhibitions. And that is one thing that you get with an all-girls school is . . . just say whatever it is you think, raise your hand. It allowed, uh, me to sort of explore anything that I wanted, and that was a great opportunity for me.


Chapter 2. At Home with the Nerds


Nearing graduation, and now intent on a chemical-engineering major, Paula started researching where the best engineers train. While she’d earmarked MIT as a possibility, she didn’t know much about it and visited many schools to see what fit best.


When I got on MIT’s campus, it was instant love. I felt instantly like I belonged. Students, regardless of whether they were undergraduates or graduate students, were walking around on campus, talking, openly, like nerds. I loved that! (laughs)

The fact that not everyone was perfectly dressed all the time, uh, but no one really cared, was actually, you know, very comforting . . . because it meant that you could be a little quirky and it would be okay.

Detroit was a wonderful place to grow up, but I hadn’t really gotten to see or experience more than what I sort of teasingly reflect on as, you know, a couple of flavors of people. When I got to Boston, it was like entering the entire world at once: the international community, people from every country imaginable.

Here was a city that had a real subway; that was really (laughs) a change for me. And because I still hadn’t gotten my license in my freshman year, I thought this was incredibly empowering! I can get on the subway and go anywhere.

When I was a freshman and sophomore, I was definitely learning how to learn differently. So what I learned was how to solve problems and how to not be intimidated by the problem—but to look at it, take it apart piece by piece, and calmly think about how these different pieces come together to form a new solution. That was very valuable.


Paula earned her bachelor’s degree from MIT in chemical engineering and decided to pursue work in industry while she thought more about graduate school.

She’d married John Hammond, a mechanical-engineering student, while they were both undergrads, and together they headed south to work at Motorola. It was the dawn of pagers and mobile phones, and Paula was one of the company’s first African American process engineers.


This was an interesting time. It was the ’80s, and people weren’t used to interacting on every level with African Americans as engineers in the workplace.

There were others talking in the workplace about women in a very derogatory fashion. We also would get those kind of uncomfortable jokes and strangenesses that would occur about race, which . . . I wasn’t used to experiencing when I was at MIT, when I was in Detroit.

On some level I also felt I had to have a good, you know, a good sense of humor about it. And having a sense of humor inherently helped.

I got to walk through the manufacturing plant area as the only black woman who was not on the manufacturing line. And when someone would ask me about the line, I would say, “Actually I’m an engineer.” And, you know, it was a chance to educate, and I thought of it that way.


Graduate school crept back in Paula’s mind, and she and her husband left Motorola for Atlanta to pursue advanced degrees: he an M.B.A. at Emory University and Paula a master’s in chemical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Once there she was reimmersed in the joys of scholarly life, both inspired and challenged by her professors. The rigors of it felt familiar to her undergrad days, and it was then that Paula decided academia was truly her calling.


I don’t think MIT ever completely left my psyche. I found in an alumni newsletter that a new program, a Ph.D. program in polymer science and technology, was being developed. I thought this would be the excellent opportunity for me to really focus on polymer science, get my Ph.D., and get back to MIT.

When I got back to MIT’s campus, everything came flooding back.


In 1992, in the midst of her Ph.D. program, Paula gave birth to a daughter, Therese. She began juggling life as a student, graduate resident tutor, and mother. True to form, the MIT community met all of Paula’s expectations and provided a supportive network around her new work/life balancing act—not to mention an extensive babysitting call list.

After earning her Ph.D. in chemical engineering in 1993 Paula was offered a position on the faculty.


When I was a graduate student and postdoc, I was married, uh, but as I began to start my faculty career, we separated and I became a single mom.

So I had this kind of segmented life. I learned how to compartmentalize, and that actually helped a huge amount because I needed to be there there (laughs) when I was with my child.

It’s been a wonderful experience actually being a parent. Now Therese is transgender and is James. And I have this wonderful son, who’s 21 years old and, uh, has this incredible sense of sensitivity and kindness, which I’m very proud of. And he is studying psychology at Northeastern.


Chapter 3. The Possibilities of Polymers


The reason that I love polymer science is that it involves chemistry. And I love putting together different chemical bonds.

But polymers, they really consist of many small molecule units strung together. The simplest polymer you can think of is polyethylene, which is the plastic film that we see stretched across many different things in our life.

Some of the most complex polymers that you can think of are natural ones, including polysaccharides, which are the sugars in our body, and proteins, and DNA.


As a professor at the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, a progressive and very competitive appointment, Paula creates polymers for revolutionary drug-delivery systems, the first of her three major research areas.


Paula Hammond

In my lab, uh, we actually work on the design of polymers. We can make a polymer, which is like a soap bubble (but much smaller) and, uh, can contain things like drugs.

This becomes really relevant for cancer, for example, because typically the drug you’re trying to carry is a toxic drug; it’s a chemotherapy drug. And you want only tumor cells or cancer cells to receive that drug.

So in that case we’re designing these drug-delivery nanoparticles—nano meaning so small that if you were to take your own human hair and slice it lengthwise one thousand to ten thousand times, that would be around the size of these nanoparticles.

They contain, on the inside, drug molecules, and on the outside, uh, there are polymers which help to make this a particle that can go through the bloodstream without being taken up by other cells. We call those polymers “stealth polymers” because they actually cloak the nanoparticle and allow the nanoparticle to look like, essentially, molecules of water as it’s going through the bloodstream. That means that other cells won’t interact or engage with the nanoparticle, and the nanoparticle won’t be eliminated by our immune systems. But when it reaches the tumor, the tumor has, uh, leaks in its blood vessels, and those leaks in the tumor blood vessels allow those nanoparticles to go through the leaks, which is why small is important. And they actually get caught up in the tumor tissue, and that allows them to reside in the tumor tissue for long periods of time, during which the drug comes out of the polymer nanoparticle.

That’s why we’re here at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. It actually gives us a chance as engineers to work directly with cancer cell biologists. And, uh, this is actually a new concept, bringing people together from different fields with that kind of spontaneous opportunity to think about new ideas and ways of addressing cancer.


Paula also applies her polymer expertise to two other major research areas: energy and fuel cells, and the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies. All three daily exercise the unique problem-solving method she learned as an undergrad.


Although I love to look at fundamental questions, I really get excited about applications. That excites me, and it excites my students. And this is sort of the true engineer in me which, uh, really wants to see the science used to solve problems. One of the mottos at MIT is “mens et manus,” which is “mind and hand.” And I really love the fact that we can take these great brains and try and put them to use in doing something useful with our hands.

On the energy side of things we build very thin films, but rather than building thin films that degrade and release a drug, we build thin films which contain carbon nanotubes that allow us to generate an electrochemical device.

They’re very thin and very portable, and we can actually get a high amount of power or energy in a very small space or area. And that’s particularly interesting for the batteries and microbatteries and the solar cells.

Back in 2001 and 2002 there was a call for a single university research center that would be funded by the army to look at nanotechnology developments that would help protect soldiers. MIT was awarded the grant, and I was part of a team of faculty members who were really heavily involved in putting together that proposal and helping to build the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies.

We are looking at wound remediation—taking care of soldier wounds, both long and short term. We’ve actually designed material systems which very rapidly release a blood-clotting protein to a soldier’s wound to help stop the bleeding.

Now we’re incorporating antibiotics into those same sponge materials. We need a broad-spectrum antibiotic to kill as many infectious agents as we can in the wound so that when the soldier arrives in a gurney at the clinic, he will be alive.

I was a single mother for about five years after I started my faculty position. And then I met this wonderful guy: his name is Carmon. We actually got married in 2000; so we’re approaching 12 years at this time.

I tend to be an introvert who buries down into things and thinks a long time about each step, and I plan a lot. And he is a free spirit. So it’s a great combination.


To see, you know, “Dr. Hammond’s lab,” that’s something that’s incredible because I had always wanted to be in a place where I could actually take these opportunities for research and turn them into something.

I find that at MIT there is this huge spontaneity that happens, and it’s not really cultivated. It’s just that there’s such a sense of comfort and trust among people that you feel you can do anything here.

One of the things that we got really excited about when we moved to the Koch Institute was the extent of collaborative interaction that’s been taking place. I would say that we moved in a year and a half ago, and since that year-and-a-half time period we’ve generated maybe seven new projects in our lab simply from people in my lab engaging with people in other labs.

So I feel incredibly blessed and happy to have these people doing these things based on an idea, a very simple, small idea, that maybe you started some time ago. It’s just amazing to see that.



In 2009 Paula presented her research on polymer batteries to President Obama, which informed his speech on clean energy.

The sponges Paula designed for the battlefield she hopes to soon develop for use by paramedics and hospitals.

The Hammond research group’s latest mission? Pursuing new ways to deliver RNA in the treatment of cancer and infectious disease.

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