National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded the
University of Wisconsin-Madison Materials
Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) nearly
$14.8 million over the next six years to continue
its leading-edge research on the interfaces of materials
at the nanoscale.
At this scale, materials are so minute that scientists
often study or manipulate them atom by atom. The
UW-Madison researchers' work could have wide-ranging
applications in electronics and biology, including
the use of atomic-scale materials to direct the growth
and differentiation of embryonic stem cells.
Initially established in 1996, the interdisciplinary
center combines the expertise of more than 30 faculty
members in 13 UW-Madison departments and includes
nearly 40 graduate students and postdoctoral researchers
and about 20 undergraduate students. It was one of
11 re-competing MRSECs to receive recent NSF funding.
"These are extremely, extremely competitive grants," says Juan
de Pablo , a professor of chemical
and biological engineering and the center's
director. "Every major university would like to
have a center like this."
With its renewed funding, and with a host of fresh
faculty faces on board, the UW-Madison MRSEC will
embark on several new areas of study, says de Pablo.
interdisciplinary research group will design liquid-crystalline-based
materials that could give scientists spatial and
temporal control over the chemical functionality
and physical properties of interfaces. "These materials, if successful, could
be used to design new sensors for various classes
of pathogens, viruses, proteins or toxic chemicals," he
says. "And they could be used to influence or guide
the growth and differentiation of cells, including
human embryonic cells."
a secondary aspect of that work, researchers in
the group will design substrates, or surfaces,
with a controlled chemistry and nanoscale topography. "They
will use this ability, again, to control the growth
and differentiation of stem cells — something that
nobody else has done and is very unique to our group," says
research group will study the interfaces between
inorganic materials, such as traditional gallium-nitride
semiconductors, and organic molecular structures.
The scientists' goal is to increase their understanding
of those interfaces so that eventually, they can
build "hybrid" organic-inorganic electronic
devices with new and enhanced properties. The applications
of such devices could range from more efficient lighting
to chemical and biological sensing.
on tremendous expertise on integration of materials
on silicon, he says, a final research focus now
will address semiconductor nanomembranes, a new
form of nanomaterial, and implementing them initially
in silicon, the most widely used semiconductor. These
membranes have unique electronic and mechanical properties.
Combined with their extreme flexibility, structural
perfection and transferability to many "host" materials,
they offer the potential for significant technological
advances in flexible electronics, quantum computation,
and in biological and environmental sensing.
In addition to its three core research areas, every
year the center also sponsors four or five seed research
projects from throughout the UW-Madison campus. The
University of Wisconsin Advanced Materials Industrial
Consortium enables MRSEC (and the campus-based, NSF-funded Nanoscale
Science and Engineering Center ) to share its
discoveries with industry.
consortium is actively recruiting Midwest companies,
says de Pablo. "This is a portal, basically, to most
of the advanced materials research that's going on
around campus," he says. "Companies can recruit students,
meet them, see what exciting ideas are brewing on
campus, and get access to technology."
In fact, says de Pablo, a number of UW-Madison spin-off
companies, including nPoint (whose founder is Materials
Science and Engineering Professor Max
Lagally ), Platypus Technologies (whose co-founder
is Chemical and Biological Engineering Professor Nicholas
Abbott ), Imago (whose founder is former Materials
Science and Engineering Professor Tom Kelly), and
Virent Energy Systems (whose co-founder is Chemical
and Biological Engineering Professor James
Dumesic ), have ties to the center.
Among its initiatives, MRSEC also purchases state-of-the-art
research instrumentation, then sites it in central
facilities so that researchers from both the university
and industry can use the equipment.
The MRSEC education group, which de Pablo calls
one of the best in the nation, partners with museums,
with schools at all levels and with the university
to disseminate tools that facilitate science learning
and improve science education in general. Each summer,
the group spends one to two months working with high-school
teachers to help them learn about MRSEC-related research
and develop curriculum for middle- and high-school
classrooms. Last November, with help from the Milwaukee
Discovery World Museum, MRSEC inaugurated the Nanoworld
Discovery Center, a portable, interactive nanotechnology
exhibit on campus.
addition, it hosts a seminar series, bringing top
researchers from around the world to campus to
lecture and interact with faculty, staff and students.
Every summer, it brings 20 undergraduate students
from underrepresented groups to UW-Madison to conduct
research in MRSEC scientists' laboratories. "The
success rate of that program has been amazing," says
de Pablo. "The majority of the students end up going
to graduate school."
partnership with the University of Puerto Rico
at Mayagüez, the center also brings several
graduate students, many of whom are Hispanic, to
Wisconsin to conduct research. "If the higher degree
that they want to get is not available in Puerto
Rico — for example, a PhD in materials science — after
they complete a master's degree, they can come to
Wisconsin to get a PhD," he says.
says de Pablo, MRSEC provides a unique educational,
research and technology-transfer setting in which
the traditional boundaries of science disciplines
are all but nonexistent. "We bring people from physics,
chemistry, engineering, biology, pharmacy, and even
the vet school to work together on these projects
of common interest," he says. "And we provide a forum
for all of these people to interact and for all of
the students to work together and advance these areas."