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April 3, 2015

Univ. research center wins $20-million grant for material design

The University of Chicago’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) was recently endowed with a six-year $20.6-million grant by the National Science Foundation through the efforts of MRSEC staff, faculty, postdocs, and students. The University of Chicago’s MRSEC was one of 12 institutions to receive funding from the National Science Foundation.

“My white hair is from there,” joked Professor Ka Yee C. Lee, director of UChicago’s Materials Research Center, as she described the stress involved in the 15-month grant-writing process. The application process for the funding began in April 2013. From that time, MRSEC staff engaged in writing various proposals to defend their work to the foundation. In preparing for this grant, the MRSEC team had to account for a change in its organization, specifically the new “E” (for engineering) part of its name. This was the first grant sent to the National Science Foundation where the Materials Center could claim engineering colleagues within the Institute of Molecular Engineering.

Lee noted how the MRSEC enables interdisciplinary collaboration between different kinds of scientists.

“There’s really a cross talk between experimentalists and theorists, between biologists and physicists, that make a very rich interdisciplinary environment to attack the very complex problems that we want to talk about,” Lee.

The research that MRSEC focuses on falls into one of three categories: IRG I, IRG II, and IRG III, where IRG stands for Interdisciplinary Research Groups. “The first one has to do with soft matter, the second one has to do with spatial-temporal control of biologically inspired smart materials, and the third one has to do with engineering quantum materials,” explained Lee.

In other words, IRG I deals with that state of matter that falls between a solid and liquid state, hence the term “soft.” It explores the interfaces of such materials and their interactions. IRG II explores dispersed molecular components that are not in a state of physical balance and which convert energy from an array of different sources into mechanical work. Finally, IRG III is concerned with designing materials that are among the smallest units of matter that may exist independently.

Lee finds that the work the MRSEC does is important beyond the science. “I think the idea of the Materials Research Center is not only to come up with a basic understanding of materials broadly defined, but also have a way of impacting society for societal benefits,” she said.

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