Q&A with Professor Monica Olvera de la Cruz
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    This story was updated on Wednesday, March 10, 2010 at 8:30 p.m.

    Materials Science and Engineering professor Monica Olvera de la Cruz. Photo courtesy of Monica Olvera de la Cruz.

    This month, Materials Science and Engineering Professor and Director of the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center Monica Olvera de la Cruz was awarded a National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellowship (NSSEFF) by the United States Department of Defense.

    Every year, the NSSEFF program provides financial support for approximately 10 fellows who have been nominated by their educational institution to work on a topic of strategic interest to Department of Defense. This year, competition was intense: There were approximately 800 applicants, but only 11 were awarded fellowships. Professor Olvera de la Cruz is the second Northwestern professor named an NSSEFF fellow — Chemistry professor Chad Mirkin previously won a fellowship in the program’s inaugural year in 2008. North by Northwestern sat down with Professor Olvera de la Cruz to discuss research and how this $4 million grant will influence her work at Northwestern.

    What are the past projects you’ve been working on?
    Over the last fifteen years, I switched to the area of electrostatics and fluids.
    For example, chains connected of repeated [units] that have charged groups assemble in liquids in the presence of different salts – like sodium chloride – into different structures because they can have various interactions between them.

    For example, if you have say DNA, which is very, very strongly charged …if it is [in] a very low salt, it is a stretch [chain.] It stretches itself because it [is] charged along the backbone of the polymer…but if you add to it salts that have more than one balance of ion plus, then it precipitates and [its’ size] can change orders of magnitude. So it compacts itself a lot. What it means is that that external environment controls the shape of it.

    How long have you been working on this?
    When I went to France I took a sabbatical to learn from an expert in charge liquids and liquids of ions and I learned a lot and they gave me a project that I was able to explain. So I came back to the US – that was 1993, when I was studying electrostatics.

    …They had a lot of data in these charged systems, and I was very lucky to be in this group for this time because they taught me about charged systems. …What happened in electrostatics is that most people have the training to look at long-range and don’t worry about the short-range aspects, or have a good training to do periodic systems, instead of looking at charged liquid systems, which are not periodic. …So it was important for me to modify the models to account for the short-range interactions in dense liquid systems of charges.

    Were you the first one to do this sort of theory and experiment?
    Before me, there was a scientist called Manning, who had done very simplified models for charged chains. The first one [I did was published] in 1995… showing that if you include correlations, in the description of the systems, you can have chains collapse due to electrostatics. …Many people have moved into the field afterwards. …I think that’s why I am still fascinated by this process, because if you find a field [where] you’re able to discover something others have not analyzed, [it] is very rewarding.

    Your current news is that you have been nominated as an NSSEFF fellow, so what are you going to do with the grant money?
    This will be definitely the largest grant I have and it will [cover] most of my work. Because it’s basic science research, it will allow me to explore more things on these concepts I’ve developed. …In my proposal, I said how I was going to merge my knowledge of networks theory of charged systems with my understanding of pattern and symmetries that are broken by these electrostatic interactions; to look at the [assembly of] larger scales and communication in cells and compartmentalization of [matter.]

    How will your project improve citizens’ lives?
    Well, basically, what I propose to study is the emergence of patterns and shapes in biological environments, but not the biological [aspect.] I care about the physics of how to control shapes, structure and functions in a system like a cell environment, which is fluctuating.

    What was your reaction when you learned you were one of selected fellows? There were around 800 nominees.
    I was extremely happy! I know there were outstanding candidates — I am flattered. …I love my work and the proposal was something I put together alone.

    Who was the first person you told the good news?
    I believe it was my daughter. She’s a very gifted student — I shouldn’t say that — she’s very attracted by mathematics. She’s 16…[and] she always complains that I work very hard… but she works pretty hard herself. It was important for me to see that [working hard] pays off. …I think at the end of the day, it is very important that she understands that we have to work hard in life and there’s a lot of pleasure it in — that is not a pain. Actually, my job for me is really a real pleasure. And I don’t imagine myself doing anything else.

    I saw that chemistry professor Chad Mirkin was a previous NSSEFF fellow. Did you contact him?
    Oh sure. When the call came, he and another friend of mine who had been a fellow, both of them told me, “you would be a great candidate for that program, Monica,” so I have to thank them because they encouraged me to apply and seek into it. …When it became official, I thanked the people that supported me right away.

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