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Spark of the team: Group works together to push boundaries

The 2020-2021 year was a banner year for Beckman's Autonomous Materials Systems Group, in terms of published research and lessons learned about teamwork in the midst of the pandemic.
Published on Oct. 12, 2021
Frontal polymerization reactionIn a frontal polymerization reaction, a small amount of heat triggers a reaction wave that produces a polymeric material.  his image depicts the noncontact initiation in frontal ring-opening metathesis polymerization of dicyclopentadiene. Photo courtesy of Justine Paul.

Frontal polymerization starts a chain reaction. A small amount of heat triggers a reaction wave that produces a polymeric material.

The Autonomous Materials Systems Group published several notable papers this year about the chemical reaction, and you might argue that its members use teamwork in a similar way. Together, they create a spark, which results in novel experiments and publications in:

  • The journal Chem, on materials containing special polymer molecules that can warn us when they’re about to fail
  • American Chemical Society’s Central Science journal, on fabricating functionally useful patterns inspired by developmental biology
  • Nature Communications, on rapid fabrication of vascular networks by harnessing frontal polymerization of the host resin to drive the vascularization

“AMS students, postdocs, and faculty relied on the strong culture of collaboration we have built over many years to propel us through all the barriers of the past year,” said Nancy Sottos, the group’s leader and head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. “We were able to support each other as a team and advance some really exciting science.”

A group of researchers, including Nancy Sottos, enjoy a talkative, lively lunch in Beckman's garden.For Sottos (pictured, center), lively lunchtime conversations in Beckman's garden are the best way to generate innovations and new ideas.Postdoctoral and graduate researchers led the work, and the team relied on spirited Zoom meetings (sometimes with more than 50 participants) to replace the energy of interacting at Beckman. In addition to sharing research results, many meetings featured guest speakers and group alumni. The goal: learning something new or describing new skills acquired during the pandemic

“Also critical was the safe return to the research labs enabled by UIUC’s massive COVID testing program and the group’s collective dedication to maintain a safe work space,” Sottos said

Nancy SottosNancy SottosTheir work offers implications for the world around us.

“The rapid response and reversibility will allow engineers to better monitor, quickly detect and respond rapidly to an overstressed structure in the lab and eventually in the field,” Sottos said of the materials shared in the Chem publication.

Similarly, their method of creating spontaneously patterned structures could someday lead to a variety of new smart materials, from tire or shoe treads to electronics and biomaterials.

In this article

  • Justine Paul
    Justine Paul's directory photo.
  • Nancy R. Sottos
    Nancy R. Sottos's directory photo.