Three MRL faculty receive NSF CAREER Awards
12/20/2021 1:16:09 PM
Three MRL faculty -- Fahad Mahmood, Antonia Statt, and Hua Wang -- are recipients of the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award.
Funded by the Faculty Early Career Development Program, the two University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Department of Materials Science and Engineering assistant professors are being recognized as promising academics. Each will receive a five-year award allowing them to explore their materials research interests.
Mahmood is an experimental condensed matter physicist whose work developing new methods and ultrafast tools for the study of emergent quantum phenomena holds great promise for applications in quantum information science, superconductivity, and other emerging technologies. In his lab, Mahmood employs finely tuned lasers to measure, control, and manipulate the macroscopic emergent properties of quantum materials such as unconventional superconductors, topological systems, and frustrated quantum magnets.
Early in his career, while still a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) working in the group of Nuh Gedik, Mahmood developed innovative ultrafast optical and photoemission techniques to study and control short-lived low-energy emergent phenomena in a variety of quantum materials. As a postdoctoral researcher at Johns Hopkins University working in the group of Peter Armitage, Mahmood went on to develop and use THz-range spectroscopy techniques to probe collective states of matter in quantum materials at their natural low energy scales and temperatures.
Mahmood’s CAREER Award will support a project titled, “Nonlinear THz electrodynamics of spin quasiparticles.” Mahmood and his team will develop experimental methods employing lasers to directly observe and manipulate spin quasiparticles, which hold tremendous promise as quantum bits (qubits) for fast, energy-efficient data transmission and storage in quantum computing. A quasiparticle is a collective phenomenon that emerges due to quantum interactions between many particles. An emergent quasiparticle behaves like and can be characterized as a quantum particle.
Classical computing bits are based on the manipulation of the charge of electrons, but fundamental limits on transmitting and preserving electron charge as a unit of memory has scientists looking elsewhere for potential technological advances in next-generation computing. The development of spintronics technologies will require breakthroughs in fundamental research. Spin quasiparticles are notoriously difficult to detect, and the quantum mechanical properties that govern their collective behavior are poorly understood. But they are predicted to have the unique ability to store and transmit information in the form of angular momentum while not carrying any electron charge.
Mahmood’s CAREER Award will additionally support educational outreach in quantum science, and he has teamed up with the Physics Van, a popular travelling science show put on by UIUC undergraduate students for elementary schools. Physics Van teaches science through interactive demonstrations, conveys the joyful curiosity of scientific inquiry, and challenges preconceptions about what a scientist looks like. Mahmood is working with leaders of the student-outreach group to now extend Physics Van shows to middle schools, incorporating demos on quantum mechanics and quantum information science and mentoring middle school students on viable future pathways into science and engineering fields.
At Illinois, Mahmood is a member of the Materials Research Laboratory (MRL), the Illinois Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (I-MRSEC), the Illinois Quantum Information Science and Technology Center (IQUIST), and the Center for Quantum Sensing and Quantum Materials (QSQM), a DOE Energy Frontier Research Center.
Mahmood received a bachelor’s degree in physics and engineering from Stanford University in 2010 and a doctoral degree in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2016. From 2016 to 2019, he was a postdoctoral fellow in physics at Johns Hopkins University, before joining the faculty at Illinois Physics in 2019.
Statt’s approximate $550,000 award, entitled “Simulations to Inform the Design of Force Responsive Copolymer Materials,” pushes polymers, the material plastic is made from, to new limits.
“I’m interested in looking at force-responsive materials,” Statt said, “so something that will change its properties when you apply some external force to it. That could be deformation, impact, stretching or any mechanical deformation on a large scale.”
Her work gets a bit tricky, though, because polymers are “very messy,” Statt said.
“You can imagine them as a bunch of cooked spaghetti, all intertwined, all entangled, creating this material with unique properties,” she said.
But Statt’s up for the challenge, and she hopes that insights gained in her research will improve polymers, which play a large role in our everyday lives.
“One idea is to use materials like that for football helmets to absorb impact energy, where you need to have a resistant material which will protect the brain from large forces,” she said. “You can also use it for wearable devices, which will sense or detect strain, for example for medical applications.”
With her award, Statt intends to launch a STEM-focused after-school program for underrepresented groups. Statt’s drawing inspiration from MatSE at Illinois’ Mid-GLAM Camp, a week-long engineering camp that aims to get middle school girls excited about STEM.
She hopes to start a pilot program locally recruiting Champaign County students and eventually, Statt hopes to implement the program in the Chicago area. One of her long-term goals is to work towards making the soft matter community welcoming and accessible for everyone.
“If we can just get five more people excited about engineering and materials,” Statt said. “Any person we can excite about science and engineering is a win.”
Wang’s flipping the script with his approximate $700,000 award, entitled “Rational Design of Immune Cell-homing Biomaterials for Immune Regulation.”
When introducing materials to the immune system to fight off cancer or disease, the human body may negatively react or even reject the material. This rejection has been the focal point in so many biomaterial research efforts. Wang, however, believes he can leverage the immune system’s response to improve the performance of the implanted materials against diseases.
“My hope is that among those immune responses some of them are beneficial,” Wang said. “While the overall immune system may not function properly in (the) face of cancer cells or pathogens, it can be re-trained by immunoengineering strategies in a way to treat the disease better.”
If Wang can develop a platform that allows precise control of immune cells and the overall immune responses in the body, then he’ll help us be that much closer to discovering new and effective therapies for cancers and other diseases.
Wang aims to make a prototype consisting of chemokine-loaded macroporous biomaterials, which can lure in high numbers of desired immune cells from other parts of the body.
“These recruited immune cells can be re-trained in the materials before they migrate back to the body to generate desired immune responses,” Wang said.
In his efforts to design materials that can recruit desired immune cells, Wang will study how the chemical and mechanical material properties decide which types of immune cells to lure in from other parts of the body. The biomaterial will be injected under the skin to help modulate the immune cells throughout the entire body.
“The immune cells have receptors on the cell membrane that can sense those chemokines released by the biomaterial,” Wang said. “Once they get into the material, they will sense the chemical and mechanical environment within the material which in turn affects their survival, proliferation and escape.”
“By deciphering the role of material properties on the immune cell recruitment, we can eventually rationally design materials that can lure in the type of immune cells we are particularly interested in,” he added.
If Wang can convince the desired types of immune cells to travel, then essentially he can control the function of the immune cells and the overall immune responses in the entire body.
“Those immune responses can be ruminated to treat disease, including cancer,” Wang said.