A Fun, Free Crash Course on How Modern Materials Shape Our World

February 3, 2022 | Elizabeth Witherspoon

Interdisciplinary Duke researchers present virtual seminars on how biomaterials, AI, sustainable and energy materials, and metamaterials address societal problems

Materials science is responsible for that satisfying clack of colliding billiard balls that sends them racing toward the corner pockets.

In the mid-19th century, billiard manufacturers still made balls from elephant ivory. Fearing a shortage of the valuable material, they offered a reward to anyone who could engineer a replacement material with properties that performed like ivory, including making that satisfying clack. Inventor John Wesley Hyatt created a substance he called celluloid, not only solving the problem but also launching what became known as the Age of Plastics. 

Upcoming Sessions

  • February 22 — Nurturing Nature: Improving Health With Biomaterials
  • March 29 — Accelerated Materials Discovery: Partnering Artificial Intelligence and Computation
  • April 26 — Planet-Saving Science: Addressing Climate Change With Sustainable and Energy Materials
  • May 24 — Metamaterials: What Are They and What Do They Do?

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Duke University alumni heard this story and others in the first of a series of five virtual monthly seminars, called “Materials Science: Designing a Better World,” hosted by Duke Alumni’s Forever Learning Institute (FLI) on January 25.

Series Features Expert Duke Faculty

You can watch the recording on the Duke Alumni Lifelong Learning YouTube channel and register for the rest of the free series to either watch live or view later when the recordings post. Anyone in the Duke University community—faculty, staff, students or friends—is welcome.

The spring series is a crash course in materials science and engineering from leading researchers in the field, thanks to a collaboration between the Duke Materials Initiative (DMI), the Thomas Lord Department of Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science (MEMS), the Duke University Energy Initiative, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and Duke’s Forever Learning Institute (FLI).

Researchers explain what they do, how they do it, and how it impacts the world in which we live, all in easy-to-understand lay terms. They respond to questions from viewers in the chat and give examples from daily life, like dental fillings, information storage, alternative energy and more.

The series kicked off fittingly with the topic, “What is Materials Science?” It featured Cate Brinson, the Donald M. Alstadt Chair of Duke MEMS and the Sharon C. and Harold L. Yoh III Distinguished Professor, with Stephen Craig, the William T. Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and a Duke alum himself (T’91). Both are experts in polymers and nanocomposites, leaders of major grants engaged in materials discovery, and enthusiastic educators.

Next up will be sessions on improving human health with biomaterials, using artificial intelligence to accelerate the discovery of new materials, the role sustainable and energy materials play in addressing climate change and environmental issues, and insights into the world of metamaterials by a global pioneer in the field.

Browse the syllabus for links to articles, videos and podcasts.

Reigniting a Passion for Learning

Launched in Spring 2021 to deliver high-quality virtual engagement with alumni, FLI’s purpose is to reignite passion for learning and the sense of being a student again by providing opportunities to hear Duke faculty explain their research and its role in solving societal problems.

Recordings of the Spring and Fall 2021 sessions are also publicly available.

"We are so pleased to be the stage for this broad representation of the incredible work Duke is doing in materials science."

Jo Supernaw | Director of Engagement, Duke Lifelong Learning

For Spring 2022, Jo Supernaw, director of academic engagement for lifelong learning in Duke Alumni Engagement & Development and lead for FLI, sought input from Stefan Zauscher, director of the Duke Materials Initiative and a Duke MEMS professor, on an outline of potential materials science topics, plus suggestions of faculty to speak about them. 

In the collaborative, interdisciplinary style typical of materials science at Duke and DMI, Zauscher involved other faculty affiliated with DMI and staff. Many emails, particularly by Brinson to line up faculty speakers, and calendar alignments later, the series took shape.

“As the faculty collaboration which serves as a hub for sharing ideas and resources in materials science and engineering, we were eager to help identify compelling topics and speakers for this series,” said Zauscher. “The timing is perfect, too, as we work to highlight Duke’s innovative work in materials science in concert with the Duke Science & Technology Initiative (DST).

DST is one of Duke’s most important initiatives. It is a fundraising effort designed to elevate excellence in the sciences through a faculty recruitment and retention effort. The main themes of DST are materials science, computing, and resilience of the body and brain

Supernaw also collaborated with staff at Duke's Energy Initiative and the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions to identify faculty and alumni working in sustainable materials.

“The topics and speakers in this series are from across the institution,” explained Supernaw. “We are so pleased to be the stage for this broad representation of the incredible work Duke is doing in materials science.”

Materials Research at Duke