UD gives voice to a diverse group of early-career researchers

When picturing a research symposium, you likely imagine academics presenting on, well, inspiring research. Fair enough. But what happens when the agenda goes beyond data and discovery?

Soft Matter for All, a one-day symposium co-hosted by the Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers (MRSEC) at the University of Delaware and Princeton University was designed to go well beyond data and discovery. A virtual webinar held on Oct. 23, the event was not just an opportunity for early-career researchers from a variety of institutions to share exciting work — although it was that. Of equal significance, this symposium was a celebration of so many varied backgrounds — social, cultural, geographic — contributing to the field.

Prof. Thomas H. Epps, III

“The science was important, but a big part of the focus was showcasing diverse talent,” said Thomas H. Epps, III, who is the Thomas and Kipp Gutshall Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, director of the Center for Research in Soft matter and Polymers (CRiSP) at UD, director of the MRSEC at UD and a co-organizer of the event. “We wanted diverse representation in terms of gender, ethnicity, disability, military background and parental status. We wanted the undergraduate students who were watching this symposium to see someone who potentially looks like them. We wanted them to say: ‘These people are doing it, so maybe I can do it, too’.”

For outsiders, any discussion of soft matter usually begins with one question: What… is it?

Prof. Sujit Datta

As a crash course for any newbies tuning in, Sujit Datta, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering at Princeton, offered a primer: Soft materials are, technically speaking, “things that are soft and squishy,” he said. These can be biological or synthetic — think fluids (from mucus to coffee), grains (like sand and soil), polymers (the molecular spaghetti used in plastics and resins) and colloids (those tiny microbeads you sometimes see in products like shampoo). Toothpaste, hair gel, fabric, paper and the hydrogel particles that absorb water in a diaper — these are all examples of important soft materials that appear in everyday life.

“In a nutshell, they are all around you,” said Datta, who is a faculty researcher at the Princeton Center for Complex Materials.

To provide an example of how studying and developing these materials can make life better, keynote speaker Prof. Paula Hammond shared some of her research. Head of the Department of Chemical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Hammond said she created a nanoparticle, a tiny sphere one one-hundredth the size of a human hair, capable of treating the most invasive and drug-resistant cancers. Now, she is working on strategies for deploying this system against ovarian cancer and glioblastoma.

Prof. Paula Hammond

A Black scientist, Hammond said participating in this particular symposium was important because its focus on diverse perspectives is a reminder of how much the discipline is enriched when disparate voices are given a platform: “We all benefit,” Hammond said. “Science gets advanced more completely and effectively, new and different problems get addressed, and young people see themselves in research role models, thus inspiring other young students of color to enter the field.”

In his address, the second keynote of the day, Joe DeSimone echoed this sentiment. The owner of more than 200 patents and a professor of translational medicine and chemical engineering at Stanford, DeSimone is the co-founder of Carbon, a California-based company advancing the 3-D printing industry. His soft-material innovations range from next-generation dentures to running shoes that actively conserve an athlete’s energy. Over the course of his career, DeSimone said, he has come to understand that “we learn the most from those we have the least in common with… A lot of times, in a lot of circles, when addressing diversity, people quickly run to the question: Does this mean we’re abandoning meritocracy? Of course not. Ability matters. But so does diversity. They are two sides of the same coin.”

Prof. LaShanda Korley

For the majority of the symposium, the (virtual) floor was opened to graduate and postdoctoral students, so that they might showcase what co-organizer LaShanda Korley, Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at UD and co-director of the MRSEC at UD, called the “depth and breadth of soft matter research from fundamental to applied.” Eighteen presenters represented 13 institutions, including Harvard, MIT, Cornell, the Air Force Research Laboratory, Stanford, Princeton, Carnegie Mellon and the Universities of Chicago, Utah, Texas, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Alabama. For each speaker, this symposium was a chance not just to refine presentation skills (a difficult opportunity to come by during a global pandemic), but also a chance to identify potential collaborators.

“Research is not supposed to be siloed in one laboratory,” Epps said. “Not if we want broad solutions to important problems.”

Among these presenters was Victoria Muir, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania and a self-described proud Blue Hen whose undergraduate experience as a chemical engineering major at UD “propelled me into future success,” she said. Currently, she works on strategies for repairing damaged spinal discs or damaged cartilage in the joints using microgels made of hyaluronic acid, a molecule naturally occurring throughout the body.

“When we were applying to present at this symposium, one of the questions we were asked to discuss was how our individual background, coming from underrepresented groups, really influences how we think about the sciences,” Muir said. “I know a lot of the applicants, including myself, talked about coming from a low-income household and how those perspectives encourage us to think about creating medical treatments or scientific advancements at low cost, so they can be more widely accessible.”

Justin Bobo, a doctoral candidate at Carnegie Mellon University, is using biological soft materials, such as human collagen, to engineer simulated human tissues in a lab setting. Typically, in a pre-clinical phase, promising therapeutics for things like traumatic brain injury and other conditions are tested on rats. Bobo’s hope is that his simulated tissues will provide an ethical and efficient alternative (or complement) to animals — one that leads to a greater success rate in clinical trials.

“One of the aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been an uptick in virtual conferences such as this one, which provide an opportunity to connect with other researchers not just from my own institution, but across the U.S.,” Bobo said. “Networking is incredibly important.”

Building this sense of community across the soft matter field was among the goals of the event, because “the more community you build, the more you create an environment where people feel they can share ideas,” said Kim Bothi, executive director of the MRSEC at UD. “It means we can work together to evolve and innovate in research, while celebrating and normalizing diversity.”

At the end of the symposium, breakout sessions allowed student attendees to connect with presenters and learn more about soft matter-focused careers in either academia or industry. Alice Amitrano, an undergraduate student from Italy studying chemical engineering at UD, said the symposium solidified her decision to attend graduate school next year. It also left her feeling empowered.

“It is great to see so many people from different areas coming together,” she said. “Every country has a different approach to STEM education that influences how scientists approach research problems, so cultural perspective is important. Also, it was great to see so many women presenting. In my major, when doing small group work, I’m often the only woman. And I’m hoping events like this encourage more of us. We have to show the men how good we are.”

If the faculty at UD have anything to do with it, there will be plenty more opportunities in the near future.

“These types of activities cannot be one-offs,” Epps said. “We are already planning the next one.”

Soft Matter for All and MRSECs

The National Science Foundation’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) program provides sustained support of interdisciplinary materials research and education of the highest quality while addressing fundamental problems in science and engineering. Each MRSEC addresses research of a scope and complexity requiring the scale, synergy and multidisciplinarity provided by a campus-based research center. The University of Delaware’s Center for Hybrid, Active, and Responsive Materials is one such program (NSF DMR-2011824). The Princeton Center for Complex Materials is also an NSF-supported MRSEC (NSF DMR-2011750). The Soft Matter for All workshop was supported by both MRSECs and Princeton University provided additional support.

| Photo illustration by Joy Smoker | Photos by iStock and courtesy of Sachiko Datta, Stanford University and Webb Chappell Photography |