IU Is Everywhere

From Bloomington to Bangkok, meet members of the IU family who are acting as ambassadors for the university.

James Mendez, Estonia

IUPUC faculty member James Mendez spent a semester in Eastern Europe teaching a course on biopolymers and studying Estonian mushrooms.

Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus assistant chemistry professor James Mendez didn't initially plan to take his research to Estonia as part of the prestigious Fulbright program.

"We had a Fulbright ambassador come give a talk on campus, but I didn't think about applying until later," he said. "I thought they were for more established, distinguished researchers."

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James Mendez and his students in Estonia focused on extracting chitin -- a naturally occurring plastic present in shellfish, mushrooms and insects -- from Estonian mushrooms. Photo courtesy of Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus

But after applying, he received word he'd been selected as a Fulbright Scholar to Tallinn University of Technology in Estonia. The area was perfect for his work, which involves studying biopolymers, or plastics found in nature.

In August 2017, he moved overseas with his wife, Julie, and 3-year-old son, Jack. Julie, who teaches mechanical engineering at IUPUC, switched to online classes for the fall, and Jack enrolled in a local preschool.

Having previously spent a year in Switzerland as a couple, the Mendezes weren't strangers to living in Europe, but the two stints abroad were distinct from one another.

"Estonia wasn't as big a change as I thought it would be," Mendez said. "Because it's such a small country, pretty much everyone spoke English well. And since it was a big city, a lot of the services we were used to were there."

Mendez and his students focused on extracting chitin -- a naturally occurring plastic present in shellfish, mushrooms and insects -- from Estonian mushrooms. They used a special fiber fabrication technique to fuse the chitin with different plastics. This process can be used to make electrically active composites that would conduct electricity.

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James Mendez's wife and fellow IUPUC faculty member, Julie, and 3-year-old son, Jack, joined him for his semester in Estonia.    Photo courtesy of James Mendez

Chitin has been shown to be very effective at healing wounds, among other biomedical uses. Mendez hopes that this fabrication technique to make miniscule fibers with a large surface area will lay the groundwork for even more exciting applications.

Mendez has returned to Indiana, but his work isn't done in Estonia. He still has a graduate student on site continuing this research, and he will return to Tallinn himself for several weeks in May to continue his work.

One of Mendez's main goals in participating in the Fulbright program was to establish a long-term relationship with Estonia. He plans to visit the country regularly in the years to come and continue his biopolymer research during those return visits.

"I didn't know anything about Estonia, looking back now," he said. "It’s all about getting those different perspectives."