Nebraska-Tuskegee collaboration to expand minority opportunities in materials science

Nebraska-Tuskegee collaboration to expand minority opportunities in materials science

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The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is partnering with one of the nation’s leading historically black universities to expand minority representation and research in the field of materials science.

With the support of a six-year grant from the National Science Foundation, Nebraska’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center will collaborate with Tuskegee University to offer the latter’s undergraduate and graduate students more opportunities for conducting upper-echelon research.

Led by Vijaya Rangari, Tuskegee faculty will visit Lincoln in early November to advance initial plans for collaborative research, joint workshops, summer research fellowships and a new materials science course at the Alabama-based institution.

The Nebraska-Tuskegee project ranks as one of eight collaborations newly funded by the NSF’s Partnership for Research and Education in Materials program, which matches minority-serving institutions with the NSF’s nationwide network of 20 Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers.

“We’re placing a significant emphasis on students from underrepresented groups because this is a big deal for our MRSEC, for the university and for the whole nation,” said Evgeny Tsymbal, George Holmes University Professor of physics and astronomy at Nebraska.

The project’s research efforts will focus on a class of polymer-based materials called multiferroics: those whose magnetism, electric polarization and even elasticity can be modified under the proper conditions. That rare combination makes multiferroics useful in technological applications that include storing data, detecting magnetic or electric fields, and converting measurable quantities into electrical signals.

Because it’s done at the nanoscale, the construction and testing of multiferroic materials demands sophisticated instruments usually found only at research-intensive institutions. The Nebraska Center for Materials and Nanoscience houses electron microscopes, laser-deposition systems and other state-of-the-art tools that are up to the task, Tsymbal said.

Evgeny Tsymbal
Evgeny Tsymbal

“The (Tuskegee) students will perform research at our MRSEC that is not possible at their home university,” he said. “So, for example, they can bring (material) samples and use our instruments to characterize their properties. During that time, they’ll also learn to use the facilities, which should be very beneficial for them.”

Jeff Shield, Robert W. Brightfelt Professor of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at Nebraska, said the $3.9 million project should not only forge new relationships but elevate the quality of materials research at both universities.

Jeff Shield
Jeff Shield

“Tuskegee has a long history of working in polymer composites, and we have an expertise in multiferroic materials,” Shield said. “This is an opportunity for faculty and students from both institutions to expand their horizons, build connections and develop materials that will have a real impact.

“Ultimately, it would be nice to recruit some of Tuskegee’s undergraduates to come here to pursue graduate degrees, but the goal is to open up these fields to groups of students who might not otherwise have these options.”