Published: April 28, 2023 By

Faculty and student working in the lab together Assistant Professor Kōnane Bay (left) works in the lab with Ava Crowley, a first year Chemical Engineering PhD student.

One of the main reasons Kōnane Bay joined the CU Boulder faculty was the recent growth of faculty expertise in soft materials across both the Material Science and Engineering Program and Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

“The expertise in soft materials at CU was a large motivator for me to join the faculty. There has been established rapport of support and collaboration inside this already strong area of research on campus, which was appealing to me,” said Bay.

Bay arrived on campus in 2022 after working as a presidential postdoctoral research fellow at Princeton University. She earned her master’s and PhD in polymer science and engineering from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and completed her undergraduate degree in materials engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Bay’s soft-materials research portfolio explores a variety of applications and approaches but generally centers on combining tiny microorganisms with fabricated materials to achieve new or unique properties. She said one application of her work for defense would be designing a material with these types of organisms that could repair itself for use in protective equipment like a helmet, for example.

Bay added that while engineering fully synthetic materials with such capabilities remains a challenge, properties like regeneration are inherent to biofilm-forming bacteria, making them a likely path forward for the work. The challenge, she said, is in designing rules for these developing materials, such as how they bend or break. Doing so would allow researchers to better understand how to keep the beneficial aspects of the living organism without destroying needed parts when designing new materials.

It is a highly interdisciplinary research process that pulls from mechanics, engineering, microbiology, materials science, and polymer physics.

“It’s all part of this growing research trend into engineered living materials that can be used in a variety of fields like construction, water treatment or medicine as well,” she said. “There is a lot of interest from federal funding agencies like the Department of Defense and Department of Energy as well as private companies.”

Bay is Native Hawaiian – she was born in Hawaii and spent her formative years on Oʻahu. Today she is deeply involved with the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and is a fellow of their Lighting the Pathway to Faculty Careers for Natives in STEM program.

Her group’s name – Huli Materials Lab – includes the Hawaiian word that means to study, to change, and is a part of “kalo” (taro plant) that is replanted into the ground to produce new plants. 

“Kalo is a highly sustainable food source and traditional food staple for Kānaka Maoli – the Native Hawaiian people,” she said. “Our group is inspired by the innate sustainability of the huli kalo cycle to develop sustainable polymeric materials.”  

Bay said her group is settling into their lab space in the Jennie Smoly Caruthers Biotechnical Building on East Campus and are currently building out their capabilities.

“We have a lot of special equipment and actually we custom build a lot of what we need to test things like tensile strength of difficult to handle materials,” she said. “For that project specifically, I am working with a student through the Summer Program for Undergraduate Research to see if we can make a new version that is low-cost and portable.”