Materials research will be viewed through new 'PRISM'

By Steven Schultz

Princeton NJ -- Merging two highly successful research programs, the University has created a new institute with a goal of becoming the world leader in an area of materials science that is emerging as an important source of scientific discoveries and commercial opportunities.

James Sturm  

James Sturm


Faculty members voted at their Oct. 13 meeting to create the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials, subsuming the Princeton Materials Institute (PMI) and the Princeton Center for Photonic and Optoelectronic Materials (POEM). James Sturm, director of POEM and a professor of electrical engineering, will direct the new institute, which has been dubbed PRISM.

The new institute will focus on research that combines expertise in "hard" materials such as conventional semiconductors and ceramics with knowledge of "soft" materials such as plastics, biological molecules and fluids. Joining these typically independent specialties could yield advances such as cheaper and smaller devices that combine optics and electronics or sensors that could be inserted into the body as part of diagnostic or prosthetic equipment. Both PMI and POEM had developed strengths in working at the intersection of hard and soft materials, which was one motivation for merging them, said Sturm.

Another motivation is that the two organizations had different but complementary approaches to their research. While PMI tended to focus more on basic science and the fundamental properties of materials on the atomic level, POEM had strengths in connecting its research to real-world applications by forging relations with industrial partners, said Sturm.

"Bringing together those two sets of strengths will be a powerful combination for Princeton," said Sturm, whose own research spans from advanced materials and nanostructures for integrated circuits and large-area displays to the interface of nanotechnology and biology.

President Tilghman said, "The creation of this institute connects the most basic curiosity-driven research to real-world applications, thereby strengthening the ties between the University, the regional economy and society in general. It also is a truly interdisciplinary endeavor that opens exciting opportunities for teaching and research outside the boundaries of traditional fields."

Faculty members associated with PRISM will come from a full range of engineering departments as well as science departments and programs such as physics, chemistry, molecular biology and applied mathematics. As the institute develops, it may create its own graduate program, modeled after that of the Program in Applied and Computational Mathematics, which accepts a small number of graduate students who are not members of any of the regular academic departments, said Sturm.

The interdisciplinary aspect of PRISM will be critical to its success, said Maria Klawe, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. "As we look to the future of the school of engineering and pick research areas where we will establish world leadership, we want to select areas that have significant overlap with the rest of the University," Klawe said. "PRISM is the ideal example, because it not only will bring the engineering school to a new level but also will benefit physics, chemistry, mathematics, the life sciences and the entire University."

The creation of PRISM also may allow the University to help fill a national void left by the declining resources of industrial research labs such as Bell Labs. "The transistor was invented at Bell Labs because they had an interdisciplinary effort that had a very long-term industrial goal," said Sturm. "It was basic research, but they had some inkling of what they were trying to do in the long term." PRISM combines interdisciplinary research and industrial collaboration on a scale that could yield substantial discoveries, he said. Sturm, who earned an undergraduate degree from Princeton in 1979 and a Ph.D. from Stanford University, worked at Intel and Siemens before joining the Princeton faculty in 1986.

PRISM builds on progress during the last 15 years in which materials science at Princeton grew from a minor specialty to a major intellectual force in the sciences and engineering. Together, PMI and POEM account for 15 percent of all sponsored research on campus. Shortly after the creation of PMI in the early 1990s, the National Science Foundation designated it as one of a handful of prestigious Materials Science Research and Education Centers nationwide. In 2002, PMI received its third MRSEC renewal, including research funding of $17.4 million over six years.

POEM also grew rapidly from 1988 when the University established it with major support from the state of New Jersey. One of the program's early strengths was developing materials that allow light to carry and process information just as electricity carries and processes signals in wires and electronics devices. It also became a world leader in the area of "organic" electronics in which conventional silicon-based devices are replaced with materials that are potentially cheaper and more flexible. This work led to several productive collaborations with companies that licensed discoveries from Princeton and continue to work closely with faculty members and graduate students.

The effort to create PRISM began in the fall of 2001 when Provost Amy Gutmann formed a committee, chaired by Robert Cava of chemistry and Stephen Forrest of electrical engineering, to chart a course for materials science at Princeton. In the spring of 2002, the committee recommended merging PMI and POEM. The idea moved forward in January 2003 when Klawe became dean and held a retreat for all POEM and PMI faculty to discuss the proposal. Following an enthusiastic response at the retreat, David Srolovitz, acting director of PMI, and Sturm drew up a detailed proposal that was reviewed by Klawe, the executive committees of PMI and POEM, the chairs of departments affected by the proposal and the Academic Planning Group.

The theme of working at the intersection of "hard" and "soft" materials came into focus during the January 2003 retreat and cemented the support of faculty members from the two organizations, according to Srolovitz. "Most of the action in materials science takes place at the interface between different kinds of materials," he said, noting that Princeton will be unusually well positioned to carry that work from the earliest stages of theoretical research to applied inventions suitable for commercial development. "I think it is going to be very exciting."


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