Some scientists are motivated by the desire to improve a specific product, such as a battery or semiconductor. Others are motivated by addressing problems facing a specific industry. Rob Macfarlane, Paul M. Cook Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT, has a more fundamental desire.
“I like making things,” says Macfarlane. “I want to make materials that can be functional and useful, and I want to do that by figuring out the basic principles of making new structures in many different size classes.”
He adds: “In many industries or types of technology, material synthesis is treated as a solved problem—making a new device means using existing materials in a new way.” In the research activities of our laboratory, we often have to complain to people that the reason we can’t do X, Y, or Z now is because we don’t have the materials to make those technological advances possible. In many cases, we still don’t know how to do them. This is the goal of our research: our laboratory aims to enable the materials needed to develop new technologies rather than focusing only on final products.
Exploring the design principles of nanocomposites, materials made from mixtures of polymers and nanoparticles, Macfarlane’s career gradually evolved from designing new materials to building functional objects you can hold. Ultimately, he believes his research will lead to new ways to make products with finely tuned and predetermined combinations of desired electrical, mechanical, optical, and magnetic properties.
Macfarlane, who won his position last year, is also committed to mentoring students. He has taught three undergraduate chemistry courses at MIT, including the current course 3.010 (Synthesis and Design of Materials), which introduces second-year students to the fundamental concepts needed to design and fabricate their own new structures in the future. He also recently redesigned a course in which he teaches graduate students how to be educators, learning to do things like curriculum development, interacting with and mentoring students, and scheduling homework.
Ultimately, Macfarlane believes that mentoring the next generation of researchers is just as important as publishing papers.
“I’m lucky. “I have succeeded and have the opportunity to do research that I am passionate about,” she says. Now, I consider it an important aspect of my job to give my students a chance to succeed.The real product and production of what I do here is not only scientific and technological advances and patents, but also students who go to industry, academia, or wherever else they choose and then change the world in their own way.
Nanometers to millimetres
Macfarlane was born and raised on a small farm in Palmer, Alaska, a suburban community about45 minutes north of Anchorage. When he was in high school, the city announced budget cuts, forcing the school to reduce class sizes. In response, Macfarlane’s mother, a former elementary school teacher, encouraged him to enrol in science classes offered to students a year older than him so he wouldn’t miss out.
“He knew that education was most important, so he said, “We’re going to get you to these last classes before they get watery,” Macfarlane recalls.
Macfarlane didn’t know any of the students in his new classes, but he had a passion for chemistry, and his chemistry teacher helped him find love for the subject. Because of this, when he decided to attend Willamette University in Oregon, he immediately declared himself a chemistry major (which he later changed to biochemistry).
Macfarlane attended Yale University for a master’s degree and initially began a Ph.D. before moving to Northwestern University, where a doctoral seminar set Macfarlane on a path he would follow for the rest of his career.
“[The doctoral student] did exactly what I was interested in,” says Macfarlane, who also recruited the student’s doctoral supervisor, Professor Chad Mirkin, as an advisor. “I was very lucky when I joined Mirkin’s lab because the project I was working on was started by a sixth-year graduate student and a postdoctoral fellow who published great work and left immediately. So there was this huge area that nobody was working on. It was like a blank canvas with a thousand different activities.
The work focused on a precise way to bind the particles together using synthetic DNA strands that act like Velcro.
Scientists have known for decades that certain materials have unique properties when assembled on a scale of 1 to 100 nanometers. It was also believed that building things out of these precisely ordered knots could give objects unique properties. The problem was finding a way to connect the particles in a predictable way.
For the DNA-based approach, Macfarlane had a starting point.
“[Scientists] said, ‘OK, we’ve shown we can do anything, but can we do anything with DNA?'” says Macfarlane. These rules allowed us to make hundreds of different crystal structures of different sizes, compositions, shapes, lattice structures, etc.
After completing his PhD, Macfarlane knew he wanted to enter academia, but his main priority was not work.
“I wanted to go somewhere warm,” says Macfarlane. “I had“When will I ever need it?” can be a common refrain among students struggling with long division, biochemistry, or book reports. By the time they get to college, it turns out they’re less likely to retain information if they don’t think it’s relevant to their future careers.