Materials Research Science and Engineering Center receives $20.6 million grant

Steve Koppes
Associate News DirectorUniversity Communications

The National Science Foundation has renewed funding for the University of Chicago's Materials Research Science and Engineering Center for another six years with a $20.6 million grant. UChicago was one of 12 institutions nationwide to receive a MRSEC grant from the NSF in this round of competition.

The UChicago MRSEC has established a multidisciplinary approach to investigating materials formed far from equilibrium, exploring new paradigms for material fabrication and response, and exploiting feedback between structure and dynamics. These overarching goals, common to all of the center’s Interdisciplinary Research Groups (IRGs), are to produce the design principles for the next generation of materials. The center will support three IRGs, each addressing a fundamental issue applicable to a broad class of materials:

IRG I: Dynamics at Soft Interfaces

Soft materials can establish highly flexible interfaces. This IRG investigates the fundamental scientific challenges associated with manipulating how much or how fast a soft interface deforms. Considering materials systems from nanoscale colloids to macroscopic granular materials, the research lays the foundation for a comprehensive understanding of the underlying fundamental science while providing a path toward new types of “smart” materials for a wide range of applications.  

IRG II: Spatiotemporal Control of Active Materials

IRG II represents an ambitious effort to understand how cells behave in order to design and synthesize ‘active’ materials that can provide smart actuation. The goal is to identify minimal combinations of elements capable of undergoing shape changes in a programmable fashion, moving from one location to another in an autonomous fashion, and exhibiting collective behavior, with the desire to create materials that can function in environments and situations beyond the reach of biological systems.

IRG III: Engineering Quantum Materials and Interactions

The goal of this IRG is to create and explore new classes of quantum materials that exhibit engineered coherence from its “atomic” constituents to its macroscale properties. The IRG uses semiconductors and trapped atoms as the basis for creating, storing and communicating quantum information for emerging quantum technologies. The proposed research could directly advance applications in quantum sensing that would allow scientists to study a material’s chemical interactions and composition on the molecular level, materials for quantum information, as well as the next generation of characterization tools for traditional materials.

“UChicago has a long history of cross discipline and has a very good collegial environment for collaborative work to flower,” said Ka Yee Lee, professor of chemistry and director of the MRSEC. “Physicists and chemists, biologists and engineers, theorists, computational scientists and experimentalists are truly working together to develop leading-edge science.”

MRSEC was established in 1961 as what was then called an Interdisciplinary Laboratory, which later became the Materials Research Laboratories when the program was transferred to the NSF. In 1994, all of NSF’s MRLs were renamed as Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers. In its newest incarnation, UChicago’s MRSEC now has an engineering component with the addition of the Institute for Molecular Engineering. Since Lee arrived at UChicago in 1998, the center has been renewed four times with more than $45 million in funding.

“MRSEC serves as an incubator for new ideas,” Lee said. “The science supported by the center is always evolving, and we actively seek new colleagues who bring in new ideas and different types of skill sets.”

The center has a call for proposal process in place to bring in new research ideas and directions. In a given proposal, MRSEC encourages two or three principal investigators to collaborate and tackle exciting problems that cannot be addressed by a single investigator.

“If you get to a point where you can’t measure, interpret or calculate something, you can go get help from a different source at the university,” said Matthew Tirrell, the Pritzker Director of the Institute for Molecular Engineering. “What the MRSEC program adds, specifically, is collaboration on conception of research. People get together before they’ve started to do anything and head off in a new direction together.”

Apart from UChicago faculty, senior investigators also come from neighboring Argonne National Laboratory and the City College of New York. MRSEC provides a stimulating, interdisciplinary environment for the training of the next generation of materials scientists, and forges strong connections between multiple research groups within the center by supporting jointly mentored graduate students and postdocs.

MRSEC students and postdoctoral students further gain access to professional development opportunities through, for example, industrial internships as well as involvement in the Management Laboratory, run by Prof. Jonathan Frenzen at Chicago Booth. The center also maintains a suite of shared facilities, which provide vital support for its research and further support the broader materials research community by granting access to external users. “If our science is evolving, the shared facilities of the center need to evolve as well,” said Lee.

In addition to training a diverse group of students, the Chicago MRSEC brings science inquiry experiences to underserved students in neighboring communities on Chicago’s South Side, including programs for students and teachers and after-school science clubs. The center provides summer research opportunities to undergraduates from all over the country and high school students from the South Side. As part of its outreach to the general public, the MRSEC collaborates with Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry and the Exploratorium in San Francisco to develop materials science exhibits.