Paula Hammond's parents met and married in Detroit. As they started growing their family in the early '60s, their area—once an "all-White neighborhood”— “quickly became Black,” Hammond recalls. Thanks to this demographic shift, Hammond grew up surrounded by accomplished Black professionals. Her father was a biochemist and her mother a nurse—so it seemed only natural that she should gravitate toward science.
In high school at the all-girls Academy of the Sacred Heart, her first woman science teacher awoke a love of chemistry. Mrs. Herr showed her students how chemicals could be combined, their colors changing as new compounds formed. “I learned that I loved chemistry and that I could actually use that interest to perhaps create things,” Hammond says. Noting Hammond’s skill in math and science, Herr encouraged Hammond to consider a career in chemical engineering.
With her father’s assistance, she began exploring her options and visiting schools. During a visit to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she felt at home. “There was something calling to the nerd in me,” she says. She embraced that inner nerd, and after high school she moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to study chemical engineering at MIT.
At MIT, Hammond says, she felt like a kid in a candy shop. “You were running past people who were at the top of their field; you were in classes with people who had done amazing things,” she says. But as a Black woman in chemical engineering—which at that time was a field led predominantly by White men—she experienced impostor syndrome, uncertain if she belonged.
“There was a definite feeling of being there but being different,” she recalls. In her classes, she was often the only Black person and one of few women. “You begin to feel isolated,” she says. But Hammond didn’t give in to the isolation. “There was no way I was going to let someone think that I can’t hang. So I’m going to meet the challenge and I’m going to be here, and I’m going to succeed.” She formed a support system with her fellow Black students, and upper-level students within the Black Students’ Union provided advice and support that ultimately gave her the confidence to do more with her research.
When Hammond finished her degree at 20, she moved to Florida with her fiancé, a fellow engineer. They began working at Motorola. As a process engineer, Hammond worked on packaging for integrated circuits for cell phones. She was responsible for keeping the plant going, “solving problems and ultimately improving the processes,” she says. But she soon became frustrated. “I couldn’t use a lot of my engineering know-how,” she says. The environment at Motorola was not inclusive. It was “clear that people weren’t used to somebody Black or somebody who was a woman,” she says. “I was teased about how long a woman engineer could last in the division.”
When her husband decided to pursue an MBA in Atlanta, Hammond saw an opportunity to earn her master’s degree. While studying at the Georgia Institute of Technology, she worked as a research engineer at the campus-based Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI). “Georgia Tech was a much better experience” than Motorola, she says. At GTRI, she had a great boss who also supervised her master’s thesis on developing conductive elastomers for robotic tactile sensors.
As she wrapped up her master’s degree, she was drawn to a new project started by Robert Cohen, an MIT professor who had inspired her interest in polymers when she was an undergraduate. She was thrilled to return to MIT to complete her PhD, during which she took a “deep dive” into applications for polymers in electrochemical and optical devices.
After a postdoc at Harvard University, Hammond returned to MIT as an assistant professor. She established her lab in 1995 and initially focused her research on the self-assembly and electro-optical properties of polymers. But she had always been interested in biomedical applications, and now that she had her own group, she had a chance to pursue this topic for the first time. “I was always curious about how you might be able to manipulate cells and deliver drugs,” she says. Once Hammond got tenure, she took a sabbatical, visiting David Tirrell at the California Institute of Technology to learn more about bioderived polymers. At Tirrell’s lab, she learned about the language of cells, biomaterials, and the challenges of drug delivery—as well as how to write proposals for the US National Institutes of Health.
When she returned to MIT, Hammond applied for numerous grants and received funding to expand her research into medical applications. A US Army request for proposals drew her eye. The army was interested in funding projects that would use nanomaterials for medical applications and to protect soldiers in the field. Hammond was excited. “I’ve always been interested in applying the work that we do to helping humankind in some way,” she says. She formed a multidisciplinary group of MIT faculty that ultimately became the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies. The team worked on materials for protective clothing using high-strength fibers and developed materials that could rapidly stop bleeding on the battlefield.
Hammond’s lab at MIT continued working on biomedical applications and developed multilayer polymer films that could release drugs. “We had these very nice results on bone regeneration and wound healing,” she says. Hoping to take the research even further, Hammond became an entrepreneur. She cofounded LayerBio with a colleague, Kenneth Mandell, who was focused on ophthalmologic applications for polymers. Given Mandell’s expertise in ophthalmology, the start-up focused on polymer films that release anti-inflammatory drugs in the eye after surgery.
Hammond is now head of MIT’s Chemical Engineering Department. She has seen many changes since her days as a student. “The number of underrepresented minority students has increased significantly,” she says. And in her department, women—who made up less than 20% of students during her undergrad years—now make up around 50% of students. “It’s really cool,” she says. MIT now also has an “understanding that students need to be made to feel welcome,” Hammond says. While she has always felt excited to be there, Hammond says the institution has not always done a great job “helping students feel at home.” What’s important now, she says, is that “we’re having the conversations”—particularly about inclusivity, diversity, and privilege—and this discussion has improved the atmosphere.
Hammond’s MIT lab focuses on the biomedical applications of polymeric nanomaterials in thin-film coatings for implants, and drug delivery approaches, including nanoparticles, artificial peptides, and nucleic acids. But the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has affected her research: in 2020, Hammond’s main focus was “to a large extent about trying to understand and meet the needs of the lab and my department.” She was concerned about the impacts on her international students and about the challenges all her students have had studying and working from home. But one positive is that “it has provided an opportunity for all of us to think more deeply about some of the aspects of our work,” she says. “When we come out of this, perhaps we’ll have a more reflective and more directly engaged community because we’ve had time to learn the things that we need.”
This story was updated on Feb. 23, 2021, to correct the dates Paula Hammond lived in Detroit. It incorrectly stated her family moved to Detroit in the 1970s. Her parents started growing their family in Detroit in the 1960s.