An Interview with Sharon Glotzer

August 25, 2015

Sharon C. Glotzer is the Stuart W. Churchill Collegiate Professor of Chemical Engineering, as well as Professor of Materials Science & Engineering, Macromolecular Science & Engineering, Physics, and Applied Physics. She was recently appointed to the National Academy of Sciences. In this interview, Melissa Chronicle, North Campus Research Complex Communications Administrator, visits Prof. Glotzer to talk about moving the Glotzer Group to NCRC, mentoring the next generation of researchers, and the possibilities offered by co-location, collaboration, sharing research, and using data science methods across disciplines.

Sharon Glotzer at ENIAC

Melissa Chronicle: Briefly tell us about your research background.

Sharon C. Glotzer: I’m basically a soft matter scientist. My approach is a physics one. This means asking fundamental questions and searching for common themes and phenomena. The engineering aspect of it goes beyond discovery to understanding rules and exploring how to use them. If we want this kind of material, this kind of object, how do we make it?

My group’s work is all theoretical and done on computers. The Glotzer group comprises students who, currently, are getting PhDs in chemical engineering, materials science, physics, applied physics, and macromolecular science and engineering. If you were to go into the lab and talk with the group members, learn about their research, and [try] to figure out which one’s the materials scientist, which one’s the physicist, you’d be hard-pressed to do it.

MC: Is that similar, would you say, [in engineering] across the United States? Or do you feel that it’s kind of a luxury here at U-M that everybody can work in so many different fields?

SCG: It is definitely the trend everywhere that science is moving to tackle more interdisciplinary questions, and interdisciplinary approaches to answering questions. Some of the most challenging and most interesting questions in science today sit at what used to be very traditional boundaries. They straddle multiple domains, multiple disciplines.

But that doesn’t mean that every institution, every university, is set up in a way that facilitates interdisciplinary research. U-M does an exceptional job of that.

For example, Nick Kotov’s office is right by mine. We have been collaborating since he came here about a decade ago. And that’s a perfect example, where he’s a chemist turned chemical engineer, and I’m a physicist turned chemical engineer. He makes nanoparticles in his lab, and will sometimes come to us and say, “Look at this image! How cool is this, what is going on here?” And then we try to do simulations, we try to understand, why are these materials behaving like this, and then if we can understand it, we can make predictions that suggest new experiments for the Kotov Group.

MC: Are there any other collaborations you’ve had at U-M or NCRC since you’ve moved here?

SCG: Well, I collaborate with Mike Solomon and Ron Larson, whose offices are also near mine; Joerg Lahann, who’s next door to me--we’ve all [been] in the same hallway, in chemical engineering, for years. We have new collaborations with people from the University that just come out of the blue all the time, and just now I’m getting involved in research at NCRC that I expect I would not have thought to do had I not moved over to this complex.

MC: Describe the simulation work that you do.

SCG: We write and use molecular simulation software to run programs that solve models of materials that we construct. We share our codes open-source with the community, and so a lot of other scientists want to use them, all over the world.

Writing our own code gives us more control over what we can do, what problems we can tackle. We can optimize our code for new computer architectures that come out. We’ve done that with graphics processors, for example, so the same chip that’s in your laptop that drives the graphics, you can actually use for scientific simulation now. As a result, my group is solving problems a hundred times faster than other groups using standard off-the-shelf code and off-the-shelf processors. So it gives us a real competitive edge, because not only can we solve problems faster, but also we can solve harder problems, more complex problems.

MC: What’s your favorite part of having the students in the Glotzer Group?

SCG: Discovering together. It’s so exciting when they come in with data and together we figure out what is going on. Sometimes it’s a whole team working on a project, because many of the projects are highly collaborative in my group. And, it’s not uni-directional. I learn as much from them as they do from me, if not more.

Many of my grad students, postdocs and research scientists collaborate not only with others in the group, but also with other groups at NCRC, and groups outside of Michigan. One thing I’ve noticed about students today--certainly my students -- with the whole social media revolution, there’s a different attitude, where they very much want to share what they discover, what they do, so it has an immediate impact. They want to give it away. And so we share codes, and that’s a different mindset from previous generations. My students are always trying to figure out new ways of sharing what we do, even besides the traditional publications.

MC: Have you experienced even more of that opportunity to share since you were elected to the National Academy of Sciences? And congratulations--

SCG: Thank you. It’s too soon to see any sort of difference like that. But I will say, it probably won’t affect [sharing research], only because in our community, we’re already looked at as one of the leaders in that area, in the open sharing of codes and data and trying to push that aspect of scientific inquiry.

MC: One last question: Has the NCRC location been advantageous in your research advancement at all?

SCG: I like the move to NCRC because the infrastructure is better, and because I’m exposed to new people and new ideas. NCRC facilitates the collaborations that came with me. It nurtures them; it makes it easier for us to collaborate.

The computational space downstairs made it possible for me to co-locate my group. My group was split into two places for years, because we couldn’t find a place big enough for the whole group, which is upwards of twenty-five to thirty researchers, not counting the undergrads. So far, that’s been a huge advantage to us. I’m looking forward to more of my colleagues making the move to NCRC.