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University professor awarded grant for physics research

By Steve Zoski, Daily News Editor
Published August 5, 2012

Last week, a University professor checked her e-mail and received a surprising message claiming that over $500,000 in grant money was headed her way. Not having applied for or heard of the grant, she initially thought the e-mail was a hoax.

After re-reading the e-mail several times, Chemical Engineering Prof. Sharon Glotzer said she realized a mystery person had nominated her for a new research grant award, which offers her the freedom to research whatever she wants.

Glotzer has been selected by The Simons Foundation as a member of the inaugural class of Simons Investigators. She will receive $100,000 each year for the next five years, and the University will receive additional funds. After the first five years, the foundation can decide to renew her funding for another five years.

The Simons Foundation was founded in 1994 by Jim and Marilyn Simons with a mission to “advance the frontiers of research in mathematics and the basic sciences,” according to its website. This year, the foundation introduced the Simons Investigators program, which selects 21 mathematicians, physicists and computer scientists to receive funding so they can spend time attempting to answer fundamental questions of science.

In an interview, Glotzer — who specializes in using computer simulations to study nano particles — said the grant allows more freedom than other more restrictive grants, which typically confine research to certain specifics and require results in a shorter period of time. Glotzer said she can use these funds to research whatever she wants.

“This is something that really gives me the time that is needed to go really deep in the fundamentals of a problem,” Glotzer said.

Glotzer added that the foundation looked at her previous work, including research in the 1990s that found that particles in liquids often get in line behind each other when they solidify into glass. She compared the particles to people at a crowded concert.

Glotzer has taught at the University since 2001 and said the grant will help her and her team of 25 graduate and postdoctoral students, and research scientists.

Glotzer said she is still unsure of what exactly she will use the grant for but has recently been particularly interested in entropy.

“I’ve been obsessed with entropy lately and understanding the role of entropy in ordering stuff,” Glotzer said. “Typically entropy is associated with disorder. We like to think they’re synonymous, but really, entropy is about options.”

She added that topics such as entropy and order are under-explored.

“Sometimes a system can have more options by staying disordered … that’s something that’s been known since the late 1950s, but not necessarily fully investigated or exploited,” Glotzer said. “The idea has particular importance for nanotechnology and biology.”

Glotzer said her research usually involves “order and frustration” and the search for patterns.

“I want to understand how things get frustrated, how things get unfrustrated and how stuff figures out how to organize itself.”

Glotzer said her research is now trying to focus on using nanoparticles to design new materials, including technology that could benefit “shape-shifters.”

“Imagine flipping a switch and causing a material to change color to camouflage itself, or change shape to move better, be stronger, or be more flexible when needed,” Glotzer said. “Perhaps we can figure out the science behind a T-800 model Terminator.”

Glotzer added that her research has applications in the medical world, among other places.

“Being able to start at the nanoparticle level, which might be a few hundred, or a few thousand, or even up to a million atoms … gives you new possibilities that you can’t have by just starting with just the individual atoms and molecules because you can shape these nanoparticles however you like,” Glotzer said.

She explained that her research is more about opening up the doors for applications than the applications themselves.

“Our work is very fundamental. We try to understand the basic fundamental science of how stuff fits together.” Glotzer said.


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