Q: Of all the stuff in the world to study, why pick something as small as nanoparticles?
A: Nanoparticles may be small, but they have a huge amount of surface area. That means that they can have a large impact on the polymers we mix them with, and can sometimes change properties by orders of magnitude. I started my research career studying interfaces in traditional particle-filled polymer composites, so when I found something with a huge amount of interface, it seemed like a natural switch.
So, is there anything left after nanotechnology? Can we study things that are even smaller?
I sure hope nanotechnology is not the end of the road, but when you get below a few nanometers, you are starting to talk about molecules that have been studied for a long time. I think that the next big steps will be in better understanding how to predict the properties of heterogeneous materials and how to make bulk nanostructured materials on a commercial scale. There is a lot of work to do there. There is also a lot of room for creating biological/synthetic material structures with unique combinations of properties. I don’t think we will run out research topics anytime soon!
You had a hand in an experiment that was tested on the outside of the International Space Station. Tell me a little bit about it.
Space applications sometimes require moving parts that must have a very low coefficient of friction, but that also don’t wear down. Fluoropolymers are used in bikes, and on skis, and many other moving parts because of the low coefficient of friction. BUT, they have a large wear rate. We found that by adding 1 volume percent of nanoscale alumina nanoparticles to polytetrafluorethylene (PTFE – one example is Goretex), that we could create a very low coefficient of friction material with four orders of magnitude lower wear rate than the unfilled polymer. It was like adding a little fairy dust changed everything! There was enough interest that it was tested in space on the international space station on tribometers built by alumnus Greg Sawyer from the U. of Florida. The samples just came down out of space and we are waiting to do some post space testing on them. It was a very exciting study – it makes me smile every time I think about our samples spending time in space.
We are about to launch NanoSpace – an online educational Molecularium experience. Check it out at www.molecularium.com later this year. It will have games, movies, and information, and we hope that kids have a blast learning about molecules with it.
Before joining Rensselaer, you were a faculty member at Drexel in Philadelphia. Did you ever visit the Liberty Bell? How about Independence Hall?
My parents took me to the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall when I was small due to an interest I had in the colonial time period, and I have been back many times since. Most recently with my children. I also went to graduate school in Philadelphia and learned a lot from the exposure to the different cultures within Philadelphia, and the international students at the University of Pennsylvania. I loved teaching at Drexel University. They have a mandatory co-op program and the students come into the classroom with a practical understanding of what they will apply in the workplace. The students there are a huge pleasure and challenge to teach.
When you’re not in the lab or the classroom, what do you like to do?
I like to be in the mountains, hiking, skiing, kayaking, or reading a book. I feel most at peace when I am in the mountains and spend as much time there as I can. My husband and two kids and I just finished hiking the 46 mountains over 4000 feet in the Adirondacks (thus the picture) and joined the 46er club this spring. This summer we will climb Mt. St. Helens in Washington State, and hopefully make it to the White Mountains of NH.
I also like to do small triathlons with the Niskayuna Women’s Triathlon Club. A great way to get outdoors regularly and socialize at the same time.