Sharon C. Glotzer has been named the John Werner Cahn Distinguished University Professor of Engineering and will give an inaugural lecture on Thursday, November 5, 2015. Glotzer joined the faculty at Michigan in 2001 after working at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS), a Fellow of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Physical Society, and a Simons Investigator. Her work spans chemical engineering, materials science, soft condensed matter physics, physical chemistry, mathematics, computational science, and data science.
Glotzer’s research group showed that entropy maximization principles applied to nanoparticles and colloids could result in spectacularly complex, ordered structures that rival those seen in atomic and molecular crystals. As described a few years ago by The New York Times, her group discovered a quasicrystal phase formed by tetrahedrons, an arrangement similar to two-dimensional tilings studied by leading mathematical physicists of the 1960s, among them Roger Penrose. In the 1980s, quasicrystals were discovered to exist in certain metal alloys. Although the quasicrystal option is rarely chosen in nature, Glotzer’s work has opened an entirely new window into the very basic question of how materials organize themselves.
Her work is much broader than the subject of quasicrystals, however, and she and her students have recently extended this research to the development of a general “shape space” diagram, showing how matter self-organizes based on the shapes of the constituent elements—a counterpart to the periodic table of chemistry. In this way, it becomes possible to predict what kind of material structure—a glass, a crystal, a liquid crystal, a plastic crystal, or a quasicrystal—will emerge. Her group has recently proposed a new approach to materials design, which she terms digital alchemy, that will allow rapid searching of shape space to find optimized building blocks for target crystalline and other structures.
Among Glotzer’s early successes was her 1997 computational discovery of correlated “string-like” motion of particles or molecules in glassy liquids, which was subsequently confirmed experimentally. Soon after arriving at Michigan, she conceived a novel way of thinking about self-assembly of nanoparticles and colloids through the controlled tailoring of particle shape and anisotropic interactions.
Glotzer is also an extraordinary teacher and leader. Most notable is her contribution, through leadership of reports solicited by the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Energy, to the Materials Genome Initiative and to new federal initiatives in computational science and engineering. She is a long-time advisor to the National Academies, DOD, DOE, NSF and the Defense Intelligence Agency.
John W. Cahn was a mentor of Glotzer’s at NIST and his early work in thermodynamics inspired much of her early and most recent work. Cahn, who received a BS in chemistry from U-M in 1949, is a prominent materials scientist, with strong ties to chemical engineering. A leading authority on thermodynamics, Cahn is also known for his discovery in the 1980s, along with Dan Shechtman, Ilan Blech, and Denis Gratias, of quasicrystals. He was a recipient in 1998 of the National Medal of Science and is a member of NAS, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Engineering. He was the Lawrence H. Van Vlack Lecturer in the Department of Material Science and Engineering in 2005.