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Prestigious Award Recognizes Wang’s Work in Materials Science

June 17, 2020

UC Merced Professor Yue “Jessica” Wang has been named one of 10 winners of the 2020 Beckman Young Investigator Award, which recognizes promising researchers in chemical and life sciences.

The awardees — who come from such institutions as Yale University, University of Chicago and UC Berkeley — were selected from among more than 300 applicants after a three-part review led by a panel of scientific experts. Wang receives $600,000 to develop polymers that dynamically adapt to mechanical impact.

The project builds on research in her lab in developing organic, recyclable, biodegradable, wearable electronics.

“Our lab specializes in this class of organic electronic materials that can lead to new generations of electronic devices. This award will allow us to take our work in an exciting new direction,” Wang said.

Using chemistry, Wang and her lab are creating materials that absorb and dissipate the energy generated by impact, making the material tougher and more resistant to damage. Marvel movie fans will recognize the idea from the “Black Panther” film — Black Panther’s body suit does the same thing.

“Jessica's work is a leading example of innovative molecular-level science transforming how materials behave and are used to enhance our quality of life,” said Professor Christopher Viney, chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

Wang and her students aim to design a soft, wearable material that is adaptive to human movement and to impact. Imagine a football helmet that gets much tougher when a player is tackled or a wearable cell phone that protects itself when dropped.

“We have already developed a material that can increase its toughness by more than 100 times as the rate of impact increases,” Wang said. “That is our first proof of concept. But we want to amplify the behavior to 1,000, or 10,000 times and apply this chemical design approach to a wide variety of materials.”

Tougher materials will have longer life and could reduce plastic and electronics waste. Adding this property to the recyclable, biodegradable polymers Wang’s lab is already working on this effort taps into the entire cycle of sustainability.

The award, designed to foster the invention of methods, instruments and materials that open new avenues of research in science, is named for Arnold O. Beckman, an American chemist and inventor. He developed the pH meter, considered to have revolutionized the study of chemistry and biology, and the DU (UV-Vis) spectrophotometer, called one of the most important instruments for the advancement of bioscience. Beckman funded the first transistor company, helping give rise to Silicon Valley industry.

“This award is a big honor, and we’re all excited to see research from a young campus like UC Merced featured in the same playground as these other prestigious universities,” Wang said. “We’re innovating to solve the world’s biggest problems in completely different ways.”