Penn State has a culture of embracing interdisciplinary research to address complex programs and challenge itself with expanded dialogue. The University’s history of interdisciplinary research goes back even to the times of Elburt Osborn as vice president for research in the late 1940s. In fact, his philosophy led to the inspiration of others to develop the first interdisciplinary research laboratory in the nation which was the materials research lab under the leadership of Rustum Roy in the 1960s!
We in the Materials Research Institute continue to strive with this tradition by building a community of materials research that spans our entire research ecosystem, crossing campuses, colleges, departments, and institutes. This issue of Focus on Materials offers you, the reader, just some of the many interdisciplinary success stories we can tell.
This interdisciplinary materials community was built over several years by enabling a system that allows the maximum number of people to come together. From an MRI perspective, the best way to create such a gathering of researchers is through our core facilities. Our facilities, such as the 2D Crystal Consortium, the Nanofabrication Lab, and the Materials Characterization Lab, provide Penn State researchers with state-of-the-art equipment and expert staff. These core facilities then act as a platform for collaboration among many different researchers, both within materials and sometimes, outside of materials.
All our efforts run in parallel with the overall Penn State philosophy of collaborative research, as is evident by the University’s interdisciplinary research institute system. There are seven of these institutes, of which the Materials Research Institute is one. This is also in parallel with One Penn State 2025, an initiative started in 2021 to create a seamless, diverse, and interdisciplinary learning experience.
Our interdisciplinary approach allows us to launch productive risky ideas, such as ideas we love to entertain in our seed grant programs. We promote our seed grant program to encourage collaborations among partners outside of their own units to explore innovative ideas for transformative, high-impact materials research. This year, 18 grants were awarded by MRI in partnership with Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratory, College of Medicine, Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, and the Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. We offered grants in strategic areas such as quantum, sustainable materials, convergent science, data science, and many others. It was fantastic that colleges and our fellow institutes partnered with us in areas where there was overlap, so these seed grants encouraged people to form new teams and work together across the University.
Those types of seeded programs are often a step toward testing proof of concepts, enabling compelling data to support faculty in terms of grant submissions. For example, Penn State did very nicely in this last round of Multidisciplinary University Research Initiatives grants from the Department of Defense. For instance, the group led by our MRI colleague Rongming Chu submitted a winning proposal, “Effects of Radiation Damage on Performance of Wide-Bandgap Electronics” that featured a team of faculty from both the Penn State University Park and Behrend campuses. It is a particularly good example of how we can operate as a "One Penn State” research community.
Moving forward, Penn State’s interdisciplinary methodology gives us a leg up as our society’s issues grow more complex and urgent, and require us to think beyond the STEM subjects. Indeed, we are seeing that sophisticated problems like pandemics and climate change require perspectives from social scientists, artists, and many other areas that were completely ignored in materials before. We in MRI are exploring that new frontier as well, as there are always new ideas and challenges coming. All said, it is inspiring to think about where our One Penn State Materials Research Community may go next, and what impact our work may have.
Clive A. Randall
Director, Materials Research Insitute