Published: April 13, 2023 By

PhD Student Albert Velasco Abadia was awarded the prestigious Materials Research Society (MRS) Graduate Student Gold Award for his research in using biological catalysts — also known as enzymes — for triggering shape reconfigurations in liquid crystal network "smart" materials.

These materials change shape in response to heat or light, with the movement used for actuation of robotics.

Velasco Abadia, who is advised by Associate Professor Joel Kaar and Professor Dan Schwartz, was first chosen as a finalist for the MRS Graduate Student Award and then invited to present his research at the society’s spring conference in San Francisco on April 13. He was awarded the highest graduate student honor on the basis of his talk.

"This award means a lot to me," Velasco Abadia said. "It recognizes the teamwork of Dan (Schwartz) and Joel (Kaar), and the work we are doing in cooperation with Tim White. It shows collaboration within the department really works."

Schwartz said Velasco Abadia initiated and led an entirely new project in his lab, collaborating with the White Group to immobilize enzymes within liquid crystal networks and creating a new class of responsive materials. While previous liquid crystal networks had been designed to respond to simple chemical cues, such as acids or bases, Velasco Abadia created shape- and color-changing materials that react to diverse and specific biochemical signals, directly relevant to biomedical and environmental applications.

Velasco Abadia said the research could be potentially applicable in tissue engineering, such as coronary stents that automatically expand on encountering fatty plaque, or in drug delivery, with the materials "knowing" the amount of glucose in a diabetic person's body and then releasing insulin when needed.

Because this project intersected biomolecular and materials science research, Velasco Abadia was required to develop wide-ranging expertise in modifying and expressing proteins, synthesizing liquid crystal materials, designing shape-changing constructs and characterizing the chemical, mechanical and catalytic properties of the resulting materials and constructs, Schwartz said.

"Albert has been an incredibly creative and productive researcher," he said. "He deserves full credit for his success, frequently bringing new ideas and interpretations to his research. I can’t recall another student who brought the same level of chemical sophistication and initiative. In many ways, supervising Albert has felt more like a collaboration with a peer than mentoring a student."

Velasco Abadia also recently won an American Chemical Society (ACS) award for excellence in graduate polymer research and was invited to give a talk at the ACS spring meeting. He plans to complete his PhD in biological engineering in June.

"I want to thank both my advisors — they have always supported me — and my labmates and my collaborators in the R+PM Lab," Velasco Abadia said. "No one had put enzymes in these materials before us. There was a lot of skepticism whether it would work, but we showed we could make this work.”