CFAES professor wins ‘Oscars’ of engineering

CFAES professor wins ‘Oscars’ of engineering
Judit E. Puskas has been elected to the National Academy of Engineering Class of 2023 in recognition of sustained excellence in innovation and education, one of the highest professional distinctions an engineer can receive.
Judit E. Puskas has been elected to the National Academy of Engineering Class of 2023 in recognition of sustained excellence in innovation and education, one of the highest professional distinctions an engineer can receive.

By Tracy Turner

She got the call while riding as a passenger in their car as her husband drove. 

The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) Distinguished Professor of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering and professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, immediately began screaming.

With joy.

The call was to notify Judit E. Puskas that she had just been elected to the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Class of 2023 in recognition of sustained excellence in innovation and education, one of the highest professional distinctions an engineer can receive. 

The recognition honors outstanding contributions to “engineering research, practice, or education,” and to “the pioneering of new and developing fields of technology, making major advancements in traditional fields of engineering, or developing/implementing innovative approaches to engineering education.”

“I cannot explain what this means to me—it’s like winning an Oscar,” Puskas said. “I was so honored and excited because this independent body was validating my entire career, my entire body of work.”

And what a storied career.

Puskas is internationally recognized for her outstanding accomplishments in rubber technology—developing polymers and biomaterial invention and green engineering implementation—in both industry and medicine. 

A native of Hungary, her career has spanned over 40 decades, two continents, and three countries, both in industry and in academia. Her stellar body of work includes over 400 technical publications and 35 issued patents. She was elected to NAE last month for her work coinventing a U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved, life-saving coronary stent coating, and fundamental research and scale-up of polymerization processes.  

Puskas, who joined CFAES in 2019 as a professor in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering, is the co-inventor of the biocompatible polymer used to coat the Boston Scientific-licensed Taxus coronary stent, which has since been implanted in more than 10 million patients. With first-year sales of more than $3 billion, it is considered the most successful medical device ever launched.

“I cannot explain what this means to me—it’s like winning an Oscar. I was so honored and excited because this independent body was validating my entire career, my entire body of work.”Judit E. Puskas

Puskas has continued to refine the polymer technology, bolstering its impermeability and taking advantage of its ability to be used inside the body without generating a damaging immune response. 

Additionally, she is a Fellow of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering and was elected to the National Academy of Inventors in 2020, which is the highest professional distinction accorded solely to academic inventors. She’s also the first woman to win the Charles Goodyear Medal, the highest honor conferred by the American Chemical Society’s Rubber Division.

Puskas attributes the start of her career to her grandmother Maria Kis, who Puskas says, “worked 12-hour shifts at the age of 66 to put me through university so I could become a research scientist.”

Puskas graduated in 1977 from the Technical University of Budapest, where she earned a master’s degree in polymer science and also met and married her husband, Gabor Kaszas, of 46 years. She also holds a PhD in plastics and rubber technology from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. While still in Hungary, she and her husband began working in a research institute specializing in microchip fabrication, working to reverse engineer the Intel 8080 chip. It was there that she published her first research paper.  

Puskas moved to the United States in 1980, when her husband was offered a position at the University of Akron, where she also began working in controlled carbocationic polymerization. The couple and their two children later moved to Canada in 1989, where Puskas and her husband began working in industry, at the Polysar Rubber Co. 

After several years working in industry, Puskas was offered a position at the University of Western Ontario, where she was tenured in 1998. She returned to the University of Akron in 2004, where she worked until coming to Ohio State in 2019. Her husband joined the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. in 2006. After retiring in 2016, he started to work again with his wife as a volunteer.

Puskas said some of her most important research is working to create safer breast implants with cancer-fighting and healing properties, calling breast reconstruction and cancer treatment her “soapbox,” with a goal to “help women in need of breast implants, especially after a mastectomy.”

For two decades, she has been working on the development of a polymer coating for a breast cancer reconstruction implant that contains drugs. The breast implant would become storage for the drug, and the coating would allow the drug to slowly release into the body and could be used in place of intravenous chemotherapy, she said, ideally making the drugs more effective and less toxic.

She received funding from the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health in 2010 to further develop the technology to create the safer breast implant, one that is less likely to leak silicone. In recognition of her work, she won the GE Healthymagination Breast Cancer Challenge Award in 2012, and a Breast Cancer Innovation Foundation was established in Akron to support her breast implant research.

“The new coated implant’s goal is to cause less of an inflammatory response within the body,” Puskas said. “That’s significant, because with current implants, the body’s inflammatory response leads to capsular contracture—scar tissue forming around an implant—when implants are used after cancer surgery.

“This polymer material reduces the risk of inflammation in the tissue surrounding the implant, which often leads to painful tissue contraction and rupture of the implant. As a woman, I was horrified 20 years ago to learn that silicone breast implants have a 20% failure rate, but women are told by plastic surgeons that this is safe.”

Initial trials being conducted now with Doxorubicin-loaded fiber mats in mice results have already generated “amazing preliminary results,” she said, noting that the project’s success would “radically improve the quality of life for breast cancer patients.” 

Another project Puskas is currently working on is the invention of the Buckeye COVID-19 mask that she expects will be more effective in the fight against COVID-19. 

She’s working with her collaborators to create and test the mask to meet the same safety and efficacy standards of an N95 mask, but with more comfort and usability for the wearers. Puskas’ mask is made of a nonwoven fabric composed of biocompatible rubber composite formed into a fiber mat that can be used to create personal protective equipment, including face masks.

The goal, she said, is to offer alternatives to the current market of N95 masks that can be used by workers in a wider variety of conditions and situations.

“The current N95 masks protect against the virus, but most people say the masks aren’t comfortable and aren’t easily breathable,” Puskas said. “There are other polymer fiber mats used in N95-equivalent masks, but they are based on rigid plastics and don’t offer much flexibility.

“The material I’ve developed is a flexible, breathable rubber, that can be made into comfortable-fitting masks. Additionally, it’s water-repellant, doesn’t allow sneeze particles through, nor will it let moisture build up on the mask from breathing. This rubber can also be used in hot, humid conditions as well as in a freezer, can be easily sterilized in water-based solutions, and is recyclable for multiple reuses.” 

Puskas and her team

Puskas was awarded an Ohio State Accelerator Grant for the project, which is now in the prototype and testing phase. She said her invention is close to commercialization and that she already has a tentative agreement with a company helping with the prototype.

Puskas is also working to turn a unique dandelion species into an alternative, domestic natural source of rubber. She is working with Katrina Cornish, the leader of that effortwho is the Endowed Chair in Bio-based Emergent Materials with CFAES and an Ohio Research Scholar.

Cornish and Puskas are now leading an effort to bring a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center to push the establishment of domestic natural rubber production. Currently, the United States has no domestic natural rubber and relies on supply from southeast Asia, a vulnerable position.

Puskas brought with her to CFAES an established research laboratory with six members and support, including a U.S. Department of Energy grant to develop more fuel-efficient tires and a National Science Foundation matching grant to create a sustainable, university-based “innovation ecosystem.”

In addition, since coming to CFAES, she continues to complement her research with extensive teaching and outreach, during which she attracts grant support and high-quality graduate students and post-doctoral scholars to her research program. Her work is also a significant part of CFAES’ work in training students to be the next generation of STEM researchers and leaders. And she is part of a project on sustainable hospital packaging, supported by the European Union, hosting visiting professors and students from Poland, Hungary, and Italy.

Puskas calls her research, her career, and her life accomplishments the embodiment of the “American Dream.”

“I’m an immigrant who came to this country with little English language,” she said. “And now, I’m a U.S. citizen and doing this work. It’s a very good feeling when you do research, and it ends up saving people’s lives.”


Those wishing to support Puskas’ research can donate to the CFAES Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering Innovation Fund for Bio-Based Polymers (#316979) or contact the CFAES Office of Advancement at 614-292-0473.