By: Amber Rose
To solve the problems of today’s society, an interdisciplinary approach to research is necessary. Charles Schroeder (BSD), a professor of materials science and engineering (MatSE), understands this need. Not only does he hold an appointment in the MatSE department, but he is also a professor in the department of chemical and biomolecular engineering (ChBE), an affiliate member of the Materials Research Laboratory (MRL), the department of chemistry, the department of bioengineering, the Institute for Genomic Biology on the biosystems design team, the Center for Biophysics and Quantitative Biology and last, but certainly not least, the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.
Schroeder’s research at UIUC works towards a vision of designing and engineering new soft materials with any desired functional property (electronic, mechanical, optical) by controlling chemical structure and composition at the molecular level. On the interdisciplinary nature of this work, Schroeder says, “When you choose an interesting problem and try to determine how to solve that problem, it’s not centered in one specific subfield, we really need to draw on techniques from all different areas—chemistry, materials, even synthetic biology.”
From coast to coast…to coast…to coast
Fascinated by the work his father did working at Bell Labs in New Jersey, Schroeder took an interest in science and engineering from a young age. He had an inspiring chemistry teacher in school which sparked a passion for the subject, but he also wanted to be an engineer. Starting as an undergrad at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, Schroeder had to decide between chemical engineering and materials science and ultimately went into chemical engineering.
After graduating, he pursued his master’s and PhD in chemical engineering at Stanford University in California, co-advised by Eric Shagfeh and physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Chu. Schroeder’s time at Stanford helped develop his interest in characterizing single molecules. He was able to work on single molecule techniques, such as fluorescence microscopy, as well as doing computational modeling/simulations of polymeric materials, and then ventured into the world of single molecule biophysics.
Following grad school, Schroeder did his first postdoc in single molecule biophysics in the chemistry department at Harvard University in Massachusetts, where he studied DNA replication, and then did a short second postdoc in the chemical engineering department at the University of California at Berkeley.
“I went from chemistry to physics to materials, and I think that’s where my interest and desire to study these interdisciplinary problems comes from, my background and training, and thinking about problems from different angles,” Schroeder says.
Schroeder started at UIUC in 2008 in ChBE, shifting recently to a primarily MatSE appointment due to his future research interests and opportunities for collaborations.
Massive, enormous problems
Research in the Schroeder group takes a molecular approach to understanding materials function. One area of research they are working on is molecular electronics—the use of single molecules as electronic components. “We’re asking fundamental questions about how electrons are transported through single molecules,” Schroeder says. Molecular charge transport is critical for the design of new single molecule electronic devices and for the development of new materials for energy storage, capture and transport.
Further, the group uses single molecule imaging to study polymers and other soft materials such as vesicles, which are membrane-bound capsules that can be thought of like a stripped-down model of a cell. They study vesicle dynamics both at equilibrium and under non-equilibrium conditions (like in fluid flow), exploring the mechanical properties of the vesicles by observing vesicle conformations such as wrinkling and buckling. Understanding this behavior is critical for materials applications including effective drug delivery reagents and for long-term stability of personal care products.
The Schroeder lab is also part of the Molecule Maker Lab Institute (MMLI), one of the NSF AI Institutes housed on the UIUC campus. The MMLI is an interdisciplinary initiative that brings together leaders in AI and organic synthesis to intensively collaborate to create frontier AI tools, dynamic open access databases and fast/broadly accessible small molecule manufacturing and discovery platforms.
Schroeder explains, “Our MMLI team is developing and using new AI tools to predict which molecules should be synthesized to achieve target functional properties. We then synthesize, characterize and study those materials, feed this information back into the predictive algorithm and continue through the closed loop process several times. Our team uses Lego-like synthesis of molecules that holds the ability to access new chemical spaces rapidly and efficiently, even for non-organic synthesis experts like me. Now my group can readily synthesize large libraries of molecules using this approach.”
When the sun sets
At the end of the day, it’s not the awards and accolades that Schroeder is most proud of, but the success of his former students and postdocs, whether they go into academia or industry. “I try to create an environment that is supportive, that is constantly trying to think about studying these open-ended questions and figuring out fundamental science,” he says. “It’s creating that supportive environment for students to want them to be excited about science and to ask these questions and support them through that process.”
Not only is Schroeder passionate about mentoring his own students, but junior faculty as well. Whether it’s just grabbing coffee or discussing a rejected proposal or paper, everyone can benefit from mentorship. Even Schroeder himself still seeks advice from his own mentors. “We all try to make major advances in science, but when our careers start to sunset, and we look back, I think that for most of us, our major contributions to the world will have been through mentoring,” he says. “Yes, we’ve published interesting papers and hopefully we have changed the world in some way scientifically. But mentoring and then having those students and postdocs go on to do great things provides a huge impact.”
Looking ahead to the future, Schroeder would like to be successful in getting a large center funded. “I think it would be a lot of fun with the right ideas and the right set of people,” he says. On the direction of that future research, Schroeder says he’s interested in pursuing more of the AI-guided materials discovery. “I was skeptical in the beginning, about how much it could really do,” he says. “But now that I’ve seen it actually work, I’ve become a believer. It’s a powerful approach that could be applied to a wide variety of problems.”
By: Amber Rose
Photos By: L. Brian Stauffer