(6co) Toward Emergent, Adaptive, and Hierarchical Bio-Inspired Materials | AIChE

(6co) Toward Emergent, Adaptive, and Hierarchical Bio-Inspired Materials


Pak, A. J. - Presenter, The University of Chicago
Research Interests:

Precise structural control over materials design has enabled unprecedented technological developments to address some of our most pressing global challenges, which include climate change, sustainability, medicine, and water. Many of these advances can be attributed to the foundational paradigm of structure-property relationships that dictate the fundamental chemistry and physics of materials. However, the prescriptive nature of the thermodynamics (and kinetics) that dictate such materials are also self-limiting. While designer materials are finely tuned for a unique purpose, it is attractive to consider an alternative in which materials are encoded with multiple functions that can be modulated on-the-fly during operation.

To this end, I have always been fascinated by the opportunities of out-of-equilibrium phenomena as a means to both expand and tune the possible materials design space. Nature is an exemplary model of this principle as most biological machines, e.g., macromolecular complexes, often undergo highly-dynamic and regulated processes for construction, modification, and recycling. Intriguingly, these complexes are assembled from many copies of individual macromolecules, which may further transition between diverse sets of hierarchical architectures. Therefore, these systems are an ideal platform to understand how collective molecular mechanisms may enable emergent and adaptive functionality.

I am particularly interested in (1) understanding the principles used by biological building blocks (i.e., proteins, lipids, and nucleic acids) to regulate the structure and function of macromolecular complexes and (2) adapting these principles to create functionally-diverse bio-nanomaterials. Through these efforts, I anticipate that the fundamental structure-kinetic-function relationships that control these inherently dynamic processes can be leveraged toward materials design in applications including energy storage, catalysis, drug targeting and delivery, and water purification. My strategic approach is to utilize the computational methodologies that I have developed, ranging from quantum mechanical calculations to systematic coarse-graining (coupled with enhanced sampling approaches), to probe these biophysics, which are inherently hierarchical and far-from-equilibrium. Therefore, I envision a research program that exploits my extensive background in multiscale computational simulations and unites my interests in nanotechnology, biophysics, and sustainability.

Teaching Interests:

Throughout my training, my mentors have been invaluable for my growth as an independent scientist and engineer. As a faculty member, I eagerly look forward to my responsibility as a mentor for the next generation of young scientists. My core teaching philosophy can be described by the following three principles. My foremost goal is to instill a passion for learning by fostering both the curiosity and the confidence to be inquisitive without fearing failure. I have thoroughly enjoyed preparing interactive activities, which highlight interesting concepts from my research, to engage local students (from elementary to high school levels). My second goal is to create tangible connections between what students learn in academic settings and real-world problems. For this reason, I firmly believe in the value of immersive, project-based learning as a supplement to lectures. Not only do these projects translate engineering skills toward problem solving, but also establish communication and collaborative skills. In fact, one of my undergraduate courses followed this model and eventually inspired me to pursue computational research. Finally, I aim to create an environment for my students to question underlying assumptions and to develop physical intuitions. As a teaching assistant, I have found that one of the best forums for this discourse emerges from thought-experiment challenges, which are first debated within small student clusters with analysis and conclusions presented to the rest of the class.

While I am prepared to teach any core chemistry and chemical engineering course, I am most interested in fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, or numerical methods. I am also looking forward to developing new courses based on my core competencies, such as a broad introduction to the growing field of computational sciences.