Soft matter for all highlights diversity, research and access

Written by
Tom Garlinghouse
Nov. 4, 2020

Unequal access to careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) is a persistent problem in the United States. But many universities and institutions are dedicated to closing this gap.

On October 23, the Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers (MRSECs) of Princeton University and the University of Delaware hosted a one-day virtual symposium, called “Soft Matter for All,” aimed at highlighting the burgeoning field of soft matter and, importantly, bringing together interested students and researchers from traditionally under-represented groups.

“The motivation for the symposium was to celebrate the diversity and creativity of researchers in soft matter, particularly younger researchers like graduate students and postdocs,” said Sujit Datta, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering and one of the symposium’s organizers. “The goal is to give them a platform so they can share their work with a broader audience.” 

“Soft matter is the study of properties and behaviors of anything that’s squishy,” Datta added. More technically, it is the study of materials that are easily deformed or altered by mechanical stress, heat or similar forces. Focusing on these properties gives researchers insights into the performance of an array of materials—from fluids, polymer solutions and gels to biological tissue, biofilms (such as dental plaque) and even food products.

The symposium began in the morning with keynote speaker, Paula Hammond, the David H. Koch (1962) Professor in Engineering at MIT, who has been a pioneer in the study of soft materials. She discussed how soft matter can be used to impact medical problems, specifically in the treatment of ovarian cancer cells and the regrowth of cartilage in osteoarthritis patients.

These remarks were followed by a brief panel discussion centered on a topic the organizers described as “what the heck are soft materials and why the heck they matter,” that served to introduce, define and address the significance of soft matter research.

The bulk of the symposium, however, revolved around 18 postdoc and graduate student speakers who shared their current research. These discussions were organized into three areas of soft matter research—biological soft matter, polymeric soft matter and colloids, grains, and soft mechanics—and ranged over a broad panoply of subjects, from, for example, cell biology to environmental decontamination to how electric fields affect polymers. Each discussion was followed by a brief question and answer period.

The second keynote speaker, Joseph DeSimone, professor of chemical engineering at Stanford University and co-founder and former CEO of Carbon, an American technology company specializing in 3D printing, gave the afternoon address.

He was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation—the nation’s highest honor for achievement and leadership in advancing the fields of science and technology—by President Obama in 2016. He has also been a longtime advocate of increasing diversity in academia and industry, and has frequently spoken about the intersection of diversity with scientific and technological innovation.

“In problem-solving, diversity is really powerful,” he said. “We learn the most from those with whom we have the least in common.”   

The symposium ended late in the day with a number of “breakout sessions” that were designed to answer questions from undergraduates, graduates and postdocs interested in academic or industry careers.

“Our goal was to be supportive of the community and supportive of diverse, young researchers,” said Howard Stone, a co-organizer of the event and the Donald R. Dixon '69 and Elizabeth W. Dixon Professor in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton University. “We’re looking forward to doing it again next year.”

In all, the symposium brought in over 400 registered participants spanning undergraduate students, graduate students, postdocs, researchers, and faculty from 16 different countries. The keynote addresses were especially well-received, drawing approximately 1,100 viewers.

In addition to showcasing the research of typically under-represented researchers, the symposium highlighted the leading role Princeton has played in the subject of soft matter.

“There are many institutions with considerable strength in soft matter, but Princeton has so many people addressing soft matter from so many different perspectives,” Datta said.

For example, the Princeton Center for Complex Materials (PCCM), a National Science Foundation supported institution, was established on campus in 1994. It is dedicated to research and outreach in the field of materials science, with soft matter as a key focus. The Soft Matter community at Princeton also holds a series of weekly mini-talks called Soft Matter at Coffee Hour (SMatCH) that allow researchers and students to discuss their current research, stimulate interest and discussion, and keep up on the latest trends in the field.

Princeton researchers have been especially innovative in current trends in the study of soft matter, such as in studying the materials science of living systems and in understanding how soft materials behave in complex environments, such as soils, sediments and the human body. The study of soft matter in these contexts, for example, can lead to more effective treatment of contaminated groundwater, aid in the cleanup of oil spills, and help medical practitioners administer life-saving drugs, Datta said.

The “Soft Matter for All” symposium was the brainchild of Princeton scientists Datta, Stone and Rodney Priestley, Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering and Vice Dean for Innovation, Office of the Dean for Research. Equally important in organizing the symposium were two University of Delaware professors, Thomas Epps, III, Thomas and Kipp Gutshall Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and Lashanda Korley, distinguished professor of materials science and engineering.