475967 Engineering the Surfaces of Tomorrow
The interface between materials controls many processes of the physical world. Precise control of these interfaces will help solve many of the environmental and energy-related crises that humanity currently faces. Understanding the specific physical and chemical interactions occurring at interfaces allows for exciting, new properties to be realized. For example, controlling the stiffness of a coating between ice and, say, an aircraft wing, allows the interface to cavitate, opening up a new class of materials that cannot adhere to ice. Highly water- and oil-repellent textiles and surfaces can only be fabricated through precise control over the texture and surface energy of the components. Next generation materials cannot be designed by incremental improvements to the current status quo. Revolutionary paradigm shifts manifest when new fundamental principles are uncovered. Leveraging these fundamental scientific discoveries with robust engineering principles allows for exciting new materials to transition from lab-scale innovations to world-changing realities. Designer surfaces are a fascinating new field that, perhaps ironically, exist right at the interface between fundamental science and engineering design.
I chose materials science and engineering because, even as the name suggests, the discipline combines science and engineering, discovery and implementation, curiosity and practicality. And because everything is made of something, my academic career path has been inherently broad and interdisciplinary. I am formally trained as a surface scientist, which has included engineering zeolite catalysts (ceramics), understanding high-strength fibers (composites), designing solid- and liquid-repellent surfaces (polymers), creating environmentally friendly textiles (natural) and fabricating drag-reducing coatings (metals and semiconductors). Use of these disparate materials and their corresponding interfaces has led to many interdisciplinary and collaborative projects, in the areas of fluid mechanics (Johns Hopkins, US Naval Academy and ONR), surface chemistry (AFRL), biology (University of Michigan and Yale) and rheology (MIT), as well as the many industrial collaborations in the areas of textiles, coatings and designer surfaces. For me, the most valuable research experiences have occurred when combining my core expertise with the expertise of others, leading to several high-impact discoveries (and publications).
My main passion, whether in the laboratory or classroom, has always been teaching. I voluntarily TAed two laboratory classes at Cornell University during my undergraduate tenure. At the University of Michigan I taught several undergraduate classes as well as personally mentored incoming freshmen interested in pursuing a graduate degree. I was fortunate enough to teach under the tutelage of Steve Yalisove, who has been instrumental in pioneering a new type of formative-based learning. I wish to harmonize this new-age teaching style with the traditional methods as a future faculty member. As an NDSEG Fellowship recipient, I have also sat on several fellowship panels and mentored interested graduate students. Lastly, I have mentored many undergraduate and graduate students in my research group.
As a faculty I will continue to combine fundamental scientific research with engineering principles in the area of surface science. In particular, I would like to further my thesis work on the design and application of liquid- and solid-repellent coatings. I am interested in taking an environmentally conscious approach to surface science, both on the design side as well as the implementation. Recently the EPA and the EU banned long-chain fluorocarbons, and the shorter-chain variants will soon follow. This is a ripe, untapped area of surface science: achieving extreme solid and liquid repellency without the use of fluorinated compounds. The design principles laid out in my previous publications will prove an excellent starting point for attacking this problem. I would also like to combine my graduate and undergraduate work by studying the interfacial phenomenon important to fiber composite body armor. As the failure of ballistic vests typically arises from poor interfacial stress transfer, taking a surface science approach to fiber dynamics should prove insightful. The reverse will also be fruitful: utilizing high-strength fibers in designer coatings will imbue mechanical durability and repellency concomitantly. As a third avenue, I am interested in applying many of the novel surfaces that I designed during my doctoral work as biologically active coatings. Almost every biological process is a surface phenomenon, making the interfacial dynamics critical but amenable to a surface science approach.
My philosophical approach to research is to attack unsolved puzzles in fun and interesting ways. Leveraging creativity, theory and experimentation, my research group will address any and all unanswered questions. These will expand to my broader research interests, which include polymer mechanics, fiber formation, drug delivery, solubility phenomenon, sustainable chemistry and biomimecry. Using my previous experience as a guide, I will forge as many collaborative ties as possible, taking an interdisciplinary approach to tackling problems in a wide variety of fields.
R. J. Stafford,
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