Smart Stuff

USD Professor Rame Robertson-Anderson


Imagine a bridge that could sense a crack forming and heal itself before disaster ensues. Envision a material that can move and respond to external cues to perform dangerous search and rescue operations. Visualize a
substance that can withstand the rigors of exploring the far reaches of space.

A $1 million grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation to USD is funding research toward creating a revolutionary class of autonomous “intelligent” materials that can perform work, change shape and move by harnessing biologically derived molecular components.

“We are very excited to receive this grant,” says Professor and Chair of the Physics and Biophysics Department Rae M. Robertson-Anderson (pictured at left), the grant’s principal investigator. “We could turn this vision into a reality.”

Specifically, she and her team will “fuse the skeletal proteins from cells with circadian clock proteins to engineer a suite of tunable materials that can autonomously stiffen and soften,” she explains. “This revolutionary approach to materials engineering has the potential to create an entirely new class of ‘living’ materials that cannot only intelligently respond to external signals but also anticipate future demands.”

This “high-risk, high-reward” research expressly aligns with the Keck Research Program’s goals to fund projects that are “distinctive and novel in their approach, question the prevailing paradigm or have the potential to break open new territory in their field.”

USD is the lead institution for the three-year, interdisciplinary grant, which also includes the University of Chicago, University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Rochester Institute of Technology. The institutions have been working together on preliminary research for this project but this grant “will allow us to move forward in a major way,” Robertson-Anderson says.

The grant also gives USD undergraduates the opportunity to play a key role in truly transformative research. — Liz Harman

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