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Zhao earns five-year NSF CAREER award

Renee Zhao, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, has received a five-year, $546,511 Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for her research in the mechanics of soft intelligent materials.

Renee ZhaoRenee ZhaoAccording to the NSF website, the CAREER award is most prestigious award in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of both. Zhao’s research is funded by the NSF program, Mechanics of Materials and Structures.

Zhao’s project, “Multiphysics Mechanics of Magnetic Shape Memory Polymers” seeks to create a wide understanding of the materials, a model to demonstrate the magneto-thermo-viscoelastic behavior, as well as a simulation platform to increase interest in possible uses. The NSF award will support the fundamental mechanics study of this novel soft intelligent material, the magnetic shape memory polymers, which was recently developed and published as a cover article in Advanced Materials.

Shape memory polymers are a soft material that are embedded with magnetic particles in a matrix. The polymers can be transformed, manipulated and locked to a desired shape using magnetic fields to start the change and heat to lock it into place. This variability and flexibility allows for several different applications in fields such as soft robots, flexible electronics, and biomedical devices for minimum invasive surgery.

This work is also highly multidisciplinary because it combines the fields of mechanics, material science, chemistry and electrical engineering. Combining fundamental mechanics with other disciplines, Zhao hopes to offer uses of fundamental mechanics in more advanced engineering fields.

Another large aspect that will come from this award will be education about and bringing awareness to the possibilities these polymers can have. To do this, the project will also provide hands-on, interactive and multidisciplinary research experience for middle and high school students through 3D printed magnetically actuated soft robots. This work will also be demonstrated to K-12 students and the general public at the local Science and Industry Science Festival and The Ohio State University STEAM Factory Franklinton Friday events.

Zhao’s prior work focused on the creation and understanding of these shape memory polymers. This new project will focus on the sharing the understanding of that work to the public and hopefully initiate the use of the material in different applications.

“To me, it feels like I have been provided this opportunity to really advance the fundamental mechanics of the field by coupling the conventional mechanics with very advanced materials for advanced applications,” Zhao said.

Zhao joined Ohio State as an assistant professor in 2018 and currently serves as director of the Soft Intelligent Materials Laboratory. She earned her bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from Xi'an Jiaotong University in 2012. She then went to Brown University where she earned her master’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2014 and then her PhD in 2016 from the Brown School of Engineering. From there, she was a postdoc at MIT School of Engineering from 2016-2018. 

By Jake Rahe, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering