Illinois researcher's nanoparticle work earns prestigious materials award


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Materials science & engineering professor Qian Chen has received the Materials Research Society’s 2024 Outstanding Early Career Investigator Award. This award is one of the most prestigious and competitive in materials science, with just one researcher under the age of 42 selected each year from an international pool of nominees. Chen is the first researcher from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to receive this award. 

The award was presented on April 24, 2024, at the MRS Spring Meeting in Seattle. Chen presented a lightening talk on her work and participated in a panel discussion. She was also interviewed by MRS TV.

Pictured: Associate Professor Qian Chen
Pictured: Associate Professor Qian Chen

“The MRS is an intellectual home for every aspect of materials research, so I felt greatly honored that I was selected from a large group of researchers accomplished in all facets of materials science,” Chen said. “I am also humbled to serve as an inspiration for people who have a similar experience as me and who might have been discouraged from pursuing a career in science and engineering.”

As the first researcher to capture real-time images of nanoparticle structure formation, Chen was cited “for transformative advances in understanding mechanisms of nanoparticle superlattice formation and electrochemical reactions through the innovative use of liquid phase electron microscopy and machine learning-based data analysis.” 

Structures formed by colloidal nanoparticles have attracted intense research attention for their ability to reorganize themselves, or “self-assemble,” when external signals are applied. If incorporated into other systems, colloidal nanoparticles could lead to materials that change their structure and function on demand. This feature could revolutionize a wide range of daily-life or extreme-environment applications such as electronic displays, shock absorbers, plasmonic antennas, catalytic platforms and biomedical devices. However, the precise mechanisms by which the colloidal nanoparticles self-assembled were elusive in part because images of the intermediate assembly steps could not be obtained.

“To study the intermediate stages, my group leveraged machine learning and liquid phase electron microscopy – a recent and very exciting development enabling liquids to be imaged on the small scales at which conventional electron microscopes image solids,” Chen explained. “We essentially created a mini aquarium inside electron microscopes. This allowed us to essentially take live videos of solution processes such as reactions and the nanoparticles self-assembling. We now have an entirely new understanding of the phenomenon, one that allows us to carefully engineer the formation of these systems and their properties.”

Chen’s work in imaging colloidal nanoparticle self-assembly is only one aspect of her research group’s broad efforts to image and understand microscopic behaviors. The group is currently extending liquid state electron microscopy and other microscopy techniques such as nanobeam diffraction and electron tomography to study complex systems such as batteries, filtration membranes and biological systems.

“This award represents just a fraction of my group’s work,” Chen said. “We are also changing our roles from the takers of videos to the directors of the videos. We can change sample conditions during imaging, to monitor and understand broadly what, when and why materials work.”

Chen is also affiliated with the department of chemistry, the department of chemical & biomolecular engineering, the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, the Carle Illinois College of Medicine and the Materials Research Laboratory at Illinois.

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This story was published May 6, 2024.