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April 26, 2018

Notbohm receives NSF CAREER Award to decipher mechanical properties of fibrous materials

Written By: Lexy Brodt

In his research, Jacob Notbohm takes a closer look at human diseases and injuries—studying cellular and material properties on the scale of a micron.

And, one of nine College of Engineering faculty to receive an NSF CAREER Award in 2018, the assistant professor of nuclear engineering and engineering physics will use funding from his award to more thoroughly study the mechanics of fibrous materials such as human tissue.

His research is unique in how it zooms in on these materials—deforming, stretching and contracting them at a cellular scale. Such experiments can increase understanding of how mechanical properties of these materials can be altered by changing the fibrous structure.

“The big picture is to relate the structure of fibers—their density, alignment and size—to the mechanical properties of the whole network,” he says. “And because there are so many different ways you can change fiber properties, there are a wide array of mechanical properties you can get as a result.”

Notbohm and his research group are particularly interested in properties such as stiffness at small size scales. For many biological materials, the more you stretch them, the stiffer they get. This fact has been known for decades, and now Notbohm aims to apply it to his research of materials at the length scale of a biological cell.

Notbohm’s group tests fibrous materials by applying forces to them and observing their reactions under a microscope. By adding microscopic active particles that contract when heated, he and his students can observe the material’s reactions to force.

Because Notbohm’s research intersects disciplines, he recognizes the importance of integrating different topics in the classroom. Among those are mechanics and biology.

“There’s this notion that students take a class in physics or mechanics, and then they take a class in biology and math, and then separate all these topics without integrating them,” he says. “So one educational objective of my award is to help students integrate concepts among disciplines.”

The CAREER award will enable Notbohm to apply this objective to not only undergraduate classrooms, but at area high schools as well. Through Research Experience for Teachers—a National Science Foundation program that promotes collaboration between higher education and K12 instructors—he’ll be working with high school teachers to create modules for students, whether on the mechanics of biomaterials or the structure of human tissue. Teachers will be able to bring these ideas back to their classrooms and lead lab units, helping students gain an early understanding of the broad scope of science and engineering.

Although his CAREER award will allow Notbohm to focus more on fibrous materials, he also studies cellular interactions. He received another NSF grant in July 2017 that funds a study of the physics of collective cell migration—for example, what kind of forces cause a cell to heal wounds, or in the case of cancerous cells, what causes them to invade the body.

Notbohm’s CAREER award is $500,000 over five years.