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Choose your own self-assembly adventure

Lilo Pozzo joins CSSAS leadership with a focus on dynamic control of materials design

Nicole Avakyan

Lilo Pozzo, Boeing-Roundhill Professor for Excellence in Engineering at the Chemical Engineering Department of the University of Washington. Pozzo has recently joined the CSSAS leadership team. Photo courtesy the UW Department of Chemical Engineering.

“You make decisions, and then you try to make the most of them,” says Prof. Lilo Pozzo. From one decision to another, Pozzo has fed her insatiable curiosity to build a multifaceted research career at the University of Washington’s Department of Chemical Engineering. Most recently, she has been making the most of her decision to accept the invitation from the Center for the Science of Synthesis Across Scales (CSSAS) to join its leadership team.

After initially contributing to the center as an investigator, Pozzo has plunged head-first into her new role as thrust leader. She is now helping to direct the center’s efforts to shape complex self-assembled materials by controlling how their formation evolves toward different outcomes with external changes.

This idea is referred to as Dynamic Interventions within the center. Pozzo likens the process to the popular Choose Your Own Adventure series of children’s books that she remembers devouring as a child. In these books, the reader is placed at the center of the story and is called upon to make choices that direct the narrative path toward multiple possible conclusions. The concept of Dynamic Interventions for the design of self-assembled materials is similar in principle, but very different in execution.

CSSAS draws inspiration from natural systems, aiming to design materials that approach their structural and functional complexity. The photosynthetic apparatus of a leaf, mineralized structure of bone, or selectively permeable envelope of a bacterial cell all have at least three things in common: they are composed of biopolymers, form by self-assembly, and have intricately organized levels of hierarchical structure that are integral to their function. Understanding and mimicking such complexity to build artificial materials with designer applications from the ground up is an ambitious task. It hinges on an intimate collaboration between computational modeling and experimental studies.

When it comes to Dynamic Interventions, this crosstalk between disciplines is even more critical. Rather than simply explaining why the molecular building blocks within a system come together to form a given structure, the models require predictive power. How will the system respond to a change in the environment? Can the assembly be directed toward a target structure that would not be achievable without a specific intervention? Models that can answer such questions and feed the predictions back into experiment in real time will push the frontier of self-assembled materials.

Pozzo recognizes the challenges and potential of the task at hand: “How do you go from explaining behavior to something really challenging like forecasting behavior? That’s what I would say is the difference between a grand challenge and something that could make a great contribution to science but is just not going far enough.”

“Choose your own adventure”Credit: Stephanie King.

Part of the challenge lies in crossing the language barrier between scientists focusing on simulation and those focusing on experiment, while making sure that all parties agree on the objectives. As someone with wide-ranging research interests, Pozzo is uniquely well-suited to bridge this divide. Although her primary expertise lies in the field of soft materials and the experimental techniques of small angle X-ray and neutron scattering to investigate their nanostructure, she is also familiar with the simulation side of the work. “I wanted to speak the same language,” she says about taking classes in molecular modeling and dynamics out of personal curiosity. This fluency enables her to communicate with experimentalists and to lead discussions with her colleagues on the modeling side just as effectively.

Pozzo’s unusually broad curiosity and life-long interest in technology have been nurtured from an early age. Her father’s work as an electronics engineer meant that there were always computer parts, electronics, and engines of all sorts for her to tinker with while growing up. His work also took the family all over the Americas (Argentina, Puerto Rico and Canada), which perhaps taught Pozzo to quickly adapt to new situations and keep her eyes open to new ideas.

In her academic career, Pozzo’s curiosity about a multitude of topics has greatly impacted the nature of the research carried out by her group. “I have a tendency to jump topics very frequently. That has been the adventure I’ve taken. I think it makes me much happier in the job I have,” she admits. Although all lab members work in the general area of soft matter physics and colloids, there are hardly two students who focus on the same type of system or application area.

This diversity creates both great opportunities and some challenges. Pozzo frequently finds herself having to make connections between students, taking them by the hand and saying: “You two, you should talk because you have a lot of things in common even though you’re working on completely different problems!”

“I recently heard a Nobel laureate describe the laboratory as essentially a buffet – you have little bits of everything. I definitely see my lab and my research fall into that category.” Pozzo and her research group on an outing (before the COVID-19 pandemic!). Photo: Marvi Matos.

The connection-building perspective is highly relevant to Pozzo’s work in CSSAS leadership as well. Being accustomed to thinking so broadly allows her to make connections between topics that may not be immediately obvious. Furthermore, it gives her confidence that skills acquired in one area are readily applicable to new problems.

Pozzo describes this capacity as “intellectual elasticity, or how comfortable you are in getting taken out of your comfort zone.” She hopes to help the investigators and trainees within CSSAS to recognize and strengthen their intellectual elasticity to tackle the unique challenges underlying materials design through Dynamic Interventions. “That’s going to be essential – increasing our intellectual elasticity and our ability to stretch beyond our comfort zones,” she believes.

Thinking back to her childhood, Pozzo recalls: “In the Choose Your Own Adventure books, it’s definitely not clear cut what decision you’re going to make. You just make one on a little bit of feeling and a little bit of information.” In many ways, the small decisions that have shaped her life and career were made in the same way. Curiosity has taken her from one direction to another, and she has been making the most of it, every step of the way. “It’s almost like you’re placed in an environment, you try to find what excites you the most, and then you seek it. That’s been the story of my life.”

About the author(s):

  • Nicole Avakyan is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California – San Diego, where she works under the supervision of Akif Tezcan in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department. She is part of the Center for the Science of Synthesis Across Scales (CSSAS). Her research interests lie in the field of biomolecular self-assembly for nanomaterial development with a current focus on protein-based systems.

Disclaimer: The opinions in this newsletter are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views or position of the Department of Energy.