MRL - NSF Renews Funding
Excerpt from the article in The COE/CLS Convergence magazine (Fall 2023) – “FOCUS ON: MRL”
Thirty years ago, the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) — aka the Materials Research Laboratory (MRL) — in the UC Santa Barbara College of Engineering received its first funding grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). This fall, the MRL reached a significant milestone by securing a seventh consecutive round of funding — $18 million for six years — making it one of the oldest continuously funded MRSECs.
The genealogy of the nation’s twenty current MRSECs began in 1960, in the wake of the former Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite in 1957, inaugurating the space race. The Advanced Research Programs Agency (ARPA), within the U.S. Department of Defense, announced the creation of three new “Interdisciplinary Laboratories” (IRLs) — at Cornell University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Northwestern University. Funding was provided to “establish an interdisciplinary materials research program and…furnish the necessary personnel and facilities” to do so. Prior to that, government-funded materials-research grants had gone almost exclusively to individual principal investigators (PIs).
The IRL program was moved to the NSF in 1972. The following year, eight more labs were established and renamed Materials Research Laboratories (MRLs). Workforce development became part of the mission, and from then on, the proposals from MRL candidates were to be judged according to updated criteria that included an institution’s ability “to foster coherent, multidisciplinary and multi-investigator projects requiring the expertise of two or more materials-related disciplines.” These so-called “Thrust” groups, now called Interdisciplinary Research Groups (IRGs), have transformed materials research and graduate education.
The NSF’s MRL competition of 1992 led to the start of just one new center: the MRL at UC Santa Barbara, which began operation in 1993, the year all MRLs were renamed Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers. Another change that year was that, going forward, all MRLs/MRSECs would be required to engage in an open national competition to win a successive round of funding. An institution’s research would thus have to remain on the very leading edge.
The late materials professor Anthony Evans led the initial UCSB proposal submission, and emeritus materials professor (Sir) Anthony Cheetham served as director of the new center through 2005. In 1997, the MRSEC moved into a new dedicated building — the Materials Research Laboratory (MRL), which is the physical headquarters for the MRSEC but also houses instrumentation and facilities, as well as faculty whose work is not directly associated with it. Cheetham was followed as director by materials and chemistry professor Craig Hawker, who served through 2016, and then by current director and distinguished professor of materials and chemistry, Ram Seshadri.
Cheetham recalls there being “great excitement when we won the competition for a new NSF-funded Materials Research Laboratory in 1992,” to become the tenth MRL in the nation.
“At the time,” he remembers, “UCSB’s shared facilities for materials research were very modest, aside from in the area of electron microscopy, so I persuaded my colleagues that we should plan a substantial multi-year investment in new instrumentation for X-rays, NMR [nuclear magnetic resonance] spectroscopy, computing, and so on. This consumed more than one-third of our total initial budget, and we continued to spend at that level for at least a decade. As a result, our facilities became the envy of many top campuses around the nation, while enhancing not only the quality of the MRL’s own research, but also that in other areas of science and engineering, since everyone on campus could purchase access to the facilities.”
The early years of the MRL saw many impressive successes, including from the Thrust on Conducting Polymers, which culminated in Alan Heeger’s being awarded the 2000 Nobel Prize in chemistry. That and numerous other pioneering outputs, together with successes both within and outside the MRL, Cheetham says, “led to UCSB’s being ranked number one in the nation in materials science by ScienceWatch for the periods 1993-’97 and 1998-2002.” The Materials Department has remained in the top five ever since.
Interdisciplinary Research Groups
While shared instrumentation and facilities make UCSB an especially good fi t as a MRSEC host institution, IRGs generate a somewhat similar benefit in terms of maximizing the contributions of individual faculty members. The 21 previous IRGs at UCSB have led to dozens of groundbreaking findings achieved through novel approaches in wide-ranging fi elds of inquiry linking the MRL to departments across campus.
Under the umbrella of biomimetics came long-term studies on the biomineralization processes that marine creatures use to strengthen their shells and even their jaws, as well as the chemistry and mechanics of how mussels create the waterproof glue they use to adhere to rocks in turbulent tidal zones. MRSEC IRGs have led to groundbreaking work on templating block co-polymers and block copolymer lithography, and to equally impressive results in numerous other materials fields.
Multiple start-ups have been generated out of IRGs. Uniax, founded by Heeger and UCSB alumnus Paul Smith, was purchased by DuPont in 2000, and professors of electrical and computer engineering Umesh Mishra (now COE dean) and Steven DenBaars used a MRSEC seed grant to pursue some of the first gallium nitride (GaN) research on campus. They founded Nitres in 1996, which in 2000 was sold to LED manufacturer Cree (now Wolfspeed). GaN is, of course, what UCSB materials professor Shuji Nakamura previously used to develop the blue LED, for which he won the 2014 Nobel Prize.
Apeel, the hugely successful company that developed and sells an all-natural plant-based coating to extend the shelf life of fresh produce, also has roots in the MRL/MRSEC, with founder James Rogers having earned his PhD in materials at UCSB.
Motivated by fundamental chemistry research performed in an IRG, Craig Hawker developed a general synthetic toolbox based on Click Chemistry. Then, inspired by those foundational studies, he and his former PhD student Eric Pressly created the active ingredients that became the patented basis for Olaplex, a product — and a successful company — that has changed the hair-care industry. Hawker recalls developing the science for the company in Pressly’s garage lab and working alongside the founders of Apeel as “a magical time.”
The latest round of MRSEC funding supports two IRGs, which include nine faculty who are new to the MRSEC. IRG-1 — Electrostatically Mediated Polymer Processing — is focused on exploiting the charge inherent in ions to create unique materials, while IRG-2, titled Bioinspired Plasticity, is aimed at expanding the theoretical and experimental knowledge of soft materials called hydrogels.
“It’s not about what we’re doing individually as researchers,” says Christopher Bates, an associate professor of materials, associate director of the MRL, and co-PI on IRG-1. “It’s about what we can do as a community of researchers tackling problems together in ways that we wouldn’t normally think about individually.”
“The biggest advantage of the MRL is its ability to bring people together,” adds Rachel Segalman, a professor of chemical engineering and materials on IRG-1. “Nobody involved with the MRSEC is in it for any other incentive than that they want to be in the same room with experts in their fields who are generating novel and exciting ideas as a team. The MRSEC provides that intellectual space.”
Read More About the Topics Below: The COE/CLS Convergence magazine (Fall 2023) - "FOCUS ON: MRL" (full article pgs. 18-23)
- IRG-1: Electrostatically Mediated Polymer Processing
- IRG-2: Bioinspired Plasticity
- Shared Facilities and Instruments
- Education and Outreach
- Continuing a Long Arc of Success
And the Highlighted Convergence Article: “MRSEC Summer Interns” (page 21)