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Bostonians Changing the World

MIT’s Paula Hammond finds big potential in molecules

From the chemical engineer’s lab come high-tech wonders with practical applications.

Paula Hammond, MIT professor of chemical engineering.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Paula Hammond, MIT professor of chemical engineering.

HERE IS A LIST OF BREAKTHROUGHS that recently emerged from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: (1) a sponge coated with a natural anticoagulant that almost instantly stops bleeding, (2) a super-thin battery that discharges power — lots of it — at blinding speed, and (3) a way of packing RNA segments into tiny but hardy spheres that can find their way to diseased cells and silence genes that have gone awry.

Now here’s something more astonishing: The entire list emerged from one lab over the last two years. The group is led by professor Paula Hammond, a 48-year-old chemical engineer who works as a sort of architect of molecules, stacking impossibly thin sheets of polymers to invent new, flexible materials for multiple applications.

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These high-tech wonders are practical enough to leap quickly out of her lab. The sponge, for instance, is so cheap to manufacture that it could show up everywhere from the battlefield to your medicine cabinet within the next few years, provided the Food and Drug Administration gives its blessing. This real-world potential is the kind of thing that makes the ears of California venture capitalists perk up — and, indeed, some of Hammond’s students recently decamped to that state to form a company that uses her nano-scale layering technique to make massive sheets of the specialized materials. “They have machines the size of my lab,” Hammond says with a slight air of wistfulness.

But Hammond herself, who lives in Newton with her husband, isn’t going anywhere. Not only is her family firmly rooted here — her son is an undergraduate at Northeastern University — her scientific work benefits from being in the Boston area, thanks to the local drug companies she has been able to recruit as partners. “Being here has been very helpful,” she says. Doubtless the companies feel the same way about her.

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