Olvers de la Cruz

Monica Olvera de la Cruz

Wessels and Marks

Bruce Wessels and Tobin Marks


In addition to her role as director of the MRC, Monica Olvera de la Cruz is a professor of materials science and engineering whose research in the MRC has focused on blends and polymers and modeling the com¬patibility of different polymer mixtures. “It’s difficult to make mixtures with polymers that are incompatible,” she says. “Our research looked at copolymers to make various polymer blends compatible.” Understanding how polymers blend is of key importance to creating new materials, she explains. The patterns created by the blending of materials affect the final microstructure of the material and, thus, its performance.

At the center of materials research

A history of interdisciplinary research at Northwestern

When Monica Olvera de la Cruz first came to McCormick in 1986 as an assistant professor, she received funding for her first graduate student from the Materials Research Center (MRC). Twenty years later, Olvera de la Cruz is the director of Northwestern’s historic center, assuming responsibility for leading Northwestern’s researchers as they tackle new challenges in materials research.

“My first student went on to become a successful professor at MIT,” says Olvera de la Cruz, now professor of materials science and engineering. “I’ve always been attached to the MRC. It has been an integral part of my career development, and it has played an important role in materials research at Northwestern for a very long time.”

The MRC may in fact be a major reason that Northwestern has developed such a strong international reputation in interdisciplinary materials research. It is one of the oldest continually funded research centers of its kind in the country, tracing its history back over four decades.

The MRC was founded in 1960 after Northwestern received $1.25 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The grant provided resources to fund doctoral students, purchase significant amounts of new equipment, and hire new faculty to pursue interdisciplinary materials research. The center was one of three national centers in materials research funded by DARPA at that time.

The infusion of resources and new faculty that came with the MRC soon propelled materials research at Northwestern to the top of the field. Key to this success are the facilities the MRC built with the support of governmental funding. The center manages 16 shared experimental laboratories and facilities occupying more than 25,000 square feet of space. These facilities provide faculty, students, and industrial partners with opportunities to use state-of-the-art equipment to solve problems of common interest. More than 500 students use the advanced facilities at the MRC each year.

“The shared equipment provided by the center allows faculty to do their research without having to build and maintain a multimillion dollar facility,” says Bruce Wessels, Walter P. Murphy Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, chair of electrical engineering and computer science, and director of the MRC’s materials processing and crystal growth facility. “The center allows you to use state-of-the-art equipment without having to purchase it.”

A focus on interdisciplinary research

Since its inception the MRC has provided a unique interdisciplinary environment that allows members to undertake materials research of a scope and complexity that would not be feasible without group funding. Today MRC members represent eight departments in McCormick and the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and actively collaborate with other materials groups on campus as well as with colleagues in the Feinberg School of Medicine School, the School of Education and Social Policy, and the Kellogg School of Management.

“The MRC gets faculty from different departments talking to each other and collaborating,” says Tobin Marks, professor of chemistry and materials science and engineering. “It can be hard to find a mechanism that supports working together, and the MRC is one of the best mechanisms I know of for interdisciplinary collaboration.”

Marks is an excellent spokesman for the MRC. Throughout his career at Northwestern he has been extensively involved in MRC research and has formed many successful relationships with faculty members in other disciplines. One key example is his collaboration with Bruce Wessels.

Wessels and Marks began collaborating in the late 1980s, when high-temperature superconductors were of key interest. “I had a novel approach for making thin films,” Wessels says. “He had the chemical precursors needed to make them. We teamed up and were able to make a whole host of high-temperature superconductors, and we received several of the early patents on them.”

That early MRC-supported success helped spawn a new National Science Foundation–funded center for superconductivity — one of many Northwestern centers with roots in the MRC. The ability to capitalize on new breakthroughs and build on them has been a key strength of the center. “It’s served as a breeding ground to stimulate faculty to do a few ‘proof of concept’ experiments and then start their own centers,” Marks says. Among the MRC offspring are such strong interdisciplinary research endeavors as the Center for Catalysis and Surface Science, the Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center, and the Center for Surface Engineering and Tribology.

Wessels and Marks have continued to collaborate over the past 20 years and are both involved in an interdisciplinary research group at the MRC on complex oxides. “The center brings people from diverse areas together, and each person has their own approach to advanced materials research,” Wessels says. “It adds new dimensions to what you do.”

Reaching out to future researchers

In addition to its emphasis on pioneering research, the MRC has a mission to provide educational and outreach opportunities for students and educators. As a result, the center funds summer research experiences for undergraduate students, as well as a similar program for high school teachers. These programs have grown dramatically in the past decade: Since 1993 expenditures on education have increased sevenfold. Like the research programs, many of the educational programs have grown into centers of their own.

For example, Bob Chang, professor of materials science and engineering and former director of the MRC, developed a variety of educational programs within the MRC that have taken on lives of their own. His Materials World Modules program, which creates curricula for middle school and high school students to learn about materials science and nanotechnology, grew from a small program in the MRC to a national center funded by the NSF. (See By Design, fall 2006, for more on Chang’s programming.)

The MRC also sponsors a joint research experience program with University College Cork in Ireland, that provides undergraduate students with international research experience. Locally, the MRC works with Northwestern’s Center for Talent Development to provide learning experiences to gifted students from across the country and sponsors an after-school mentoring program for at-risk students at Chute Middle School in Evanston.

Looking to the future

Last year the Materials Research Center successfully renewed its funding for the next six years, receiving $12.8 million from the NSF. The center is reviewed every six years by the agency, at which time the center’s leadership team reevaluates its research priorities.

With her arrival this year as director, Olvera de la Cruz has the challenge of taking the MRC to the next level of excellence. “It’s unique for a center to maintain continuous funding for such a long period of time, and I think that’s due to Northwestern’s excellent management of the center,” she says. “I look forward to working to strengthen our current areas of research and to pursue new areas that may provide even greater contributions to our society.”

—Kyle Delaney