New degree at University of Southern Miss. combines sports and polymers

Published 1:21 pm Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Bobby Cook always thought of snowboarding as a weekend pleasure. He never dreamed he could parlay his love for the outdoors into a lucrative career.

“I had no clue I could take my physics degree and work for a winter sports company,” the Tamaqua, Pa., native said. “I was hooked.”

Cook, 23, is already conducting research for Seattle, Wash.-based K2 Snowboarding, where he interned last summer after becoming one of five pioneering graduate students in the University of Southern Mississippi’s new degree program in Sports and High Performance Materials.

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“This is a new kind of scientist we’re going to produce here. This scientist doesn’t exist today,” said polymer science professor Jeff Wiggins, a former general manager of manufacturing at Nike. “Our product here is going to be our students.”

The program — unique in the nation — aims to produce research scientists with expertise in the connection between human performance and high-tech materials. The $400 billion sporting goods industry and the military sector are wide open to such scientists, who would study and advance ways to minimize injury or enhance human performance.

Many of these scientists could become entrepreneurs in their own right should their research yield a next-generation baseball bat, sweat-wicking fabric or mouth guard.

That fits in with the university’s emphasis on creating marketable products based on laboratory research. The initiative is a favorite of Shelby Thames, who recently ended his time as Southern Miss president and returned to polymer research. He also is helping develop the university’s Innovation and Commercialization Park.

“There are so many applications, from fabrics to composites to lightweight materials for braces to head gear to mouth pieces to better golf clubs. When you think about it, there’s immense potential,” Thames said. “Now we’ll be at the heartbeat of the industry. In my opinion, this is going to be one of the larger, stronger, more nationally recognized programs at our university.”

In another first for Southern Miss, the program is a collaboration between the university’s College of Science and Technology and its College of Health, combining aspects of the sports and human performance discipline with physiology, polymer science and more.

Polymer science faculty know firsthand the benefit of being part of a successful niche program. Southern Miss’ polymers program is an international leader, and Wiggins said he hopes the new sports and high performance materials program can gain similar traction and help the entire university.

“Southern Miss will not compete with (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in physics or (the California Institute of Technology) in chemistry,” he said. “But we can carve out these niches … and create something that’s special and unique to Southern Miss.”

Wiggins and his colleagues hope to draw more young people into the sciences through the students’ enthusiasm for sports. Increasing highly qualified mathematicians and scientists is a national priority, as other countries now outpace the United States in producing such graduates.

“This thing sells itself” to students wary of the sciences, Wiggins said.

“To the 18-year-old mind, science is so abstract that it’s intimidating and unfamiliar and nebulous,” he said. “But if you talk about a football helmet or a baseball bat, and impact and collision, students not only have a good feel for what that is, they probably have some experience with that. That way you can teach science from a perspective students already understand.”

Market demand for these specially trained scientists is intense, Wiggins said. About 2,500 sporting goods companies compete for researchers, and new companies are frequently founded in a dynamic and universally popular industry.

The internationally renowned Andrews Institute in Pensacola, Fla. — “where Michael Jordan goes for surgery,” Wiggins said — contacted Southern Miss after hearing about the new program, and this summer accepted two graduate interns. The university is now focusing on building and adding such relationships to support research during the academic year.

This fall, Southern Miss will for the first time roll out its undergraduate degree program in sports and high performance materials, and add two more graduate students to its master’s and doctoral tracks.

Already flush with applicants without much recruiting, the program could be a vehicle for building enrollment in the future, Wiggins said. The university hopes to add 100 new students who otherwise would not have attended Southern Miss.

For Cook, a collegiate and high school athlete, the sports and high performance materials degree is the opportunity of a lifetime — the perfect scientific and professional match.