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Minds over Matters: What if?

Katherine Ziemer, ChE Professor and asso­ciate vice provost for cur­riculum explains how asking What If leads to new discoveries.


Source: News @ Northeastern

Whether it’s a boogie board, bicy­cles, or Bruce Wayne’s Bat­suit, the evo­lu­tion of how objects look and func­tion can be traced back to one ques­tion: “What if?” What if I create a dif­ferent kind of surf­board, one that doesn’t require as much training? Or what if Batman is trapped in a dark room and needs to see?

Katherine Ziemer, asso­ciate vice provost for cur­riculum and pro­fessor in the Depart­ment of Chem­ical Engi­neering, said that “What if?” is one of her favorite phrases. And it also leads to another ques­tion in Ziemer’s world of mate­rials sci­ence: “Why?”

Ziemer dis­cussed her curiosity on Wednesday after­noon in the Raytheon Amphithe­ater, deliv­ering the latest lec­ture in Northeastern’s “Minds over Mat­ters: NUterm Fac­ulty Speaker Series.” The weekly series fea­tures top fac­ulty scholars who dis­cuss their research and examine inno­va­tion, new dis­cov­eries, and timely topics of global importance.

‘What if we’ is the cre­ativity ques­tion,” Ziemer said. “It makes us open our minds a little bit, and how exciting is that?”

Ziemer explained how she often asks these ques­tions in ref­er­ence to how mate­rials can improve the world around us, whether it’s mon­i­toring brain activity, cleaning up water, or improving telecommunications.

To find answers, Ziemer turns to the atom, the smallest unit of matter. Through her research she attempts to deter­mine if she can con­trol atoms and how they com­bine— and there­fore con­trol the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the mate­rials they make up.

If I want to con­trol atoms, I have to under­stand why they do what they do,” Ziemer said. “I am looking at using atoms to do new and dif­ferent things.”

One way she has done this is through her work with the U.S. Navy to improve com­mu­ni­ca­tions across var­ious plat­forms, specif­i­cally during combat sit­u­a­tions. The Navy asked Ziemer “what if” she came up with a com­mu­ni­ca­tion system that was lighter in weight and required less power but still enabled the level of com­mu­ni­ca­tion the Navy needed.

When Ziemer looked at the amount of power needed for the com­mu­ni­ca­tion system to work, she noticed the var­ious types of chips required to gen­erate and con­trol the mag­netic and elec­tric fields.

So our idea was to put those mag­netic and elec­trical mate­rials together, enabling them to talk to each other directly and there­fore elim­i­nating the amount of mass and devices they needed to have,” Ziemer explained.

Related Faculty: Katherine S. Ziemer

Related Departments:Chemical Engineering