Davidson joins CBE faculty, bringing expertise in biologically inspired materials

Written by
Scott Lyon
Sept. 23, 2020

Emily C. Davidson will join the Princeton faculty as an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering on Jan. 1, 2021, bringing expertise designing highly specialized materials in conjunction with additive processes such as 3D printing.

"I'm totally an experimentalist. I go in the lab and I make new materials through polymer synthesis," Davidson said.

In the past she has studied the structure of materials from the most basic molecular level, in biomimetic sequence-defined chains, to their assembly into nanostructures at relatively large scales. Her insight into the fundamental characteristics of these polymers eventually led to her interest in 3D printing as a tool to direct the assembly of polymers that align or phase-separate at the nanoscale.

"If you look at materials in nature, you have this incredible hierarchy, where you have some kind of critical material properties at the molecular and the polymer level, but you also have structure over many many length scales." Harnessing this sort of complexity for the controlled production of new materials could enable new applications in biomedical engineering and soft robotics, she said.

"I think combining polymer molecular design and polymer physics with techniques like additive [manufacturing] is the best way we have to start doing that."

Davidson grew up in Bridgewater, N.J., the daughter of two engineers. As a child she would go rock hunting with her mother, a chemical engineer, and recalls being fascinated by science demonstrations from an early age. But it wasn't until high school, when classes shifted toward the study of cause and effect, rather than rote memorization, that her interest in science and engineering consolidated into a career path.

Even then, that path has not always been direct. She attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and received a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering in 2010. She then joined Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that recruits and trains highly successful young professionals to teach in underresourced primary and secondary schools across the nation.

Davidson taught high school chemistry for two years in Richmond, CA, where she enjoyed the challenges and working with students, but missed the rewards of scientific research.

"I got to the point where I was like, 'Well, what do I love? I love research and doing science, and I love teaching and mentoring students.' And there's really only one job that lets you do both of those at a high level," she said. She entered graduate school the next year.

One of the aspects that drew Davidson to join the Princeton faculty, in particular, she said, was the emphasis and value placed on excellence in teaching in addition to the emphasis on research. She will begin advising graduate students in January.

Davidson joins Princeton from Harvard University, where she spent three years as a postdoctoral research fellow working with Professor Jennifer Lewis. Prior to that, in 2017, she earned a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of California-Berkeley, which she completed in part through research under the advisement of Professor Rachel Segalman at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

In her free time, Davidson most enjoys backpacking in the High Sierra of California with her husband Eric. In August, they welcomed a child, Amos, their first.