Science & Technology Award: Americas
At the Annual Meeting of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) in Salt Lake City, USA, the 2015 DSM Science and Technology Award Americas was presented to Stephen Ma for his work on polymer wrinkling. AIChE jury member and Product Design Area Chair-Elect Mosha Zhao, from ExxonMobil, commented "Award winner Stephen Ma has developed an innovative idea with interesting insights into polymer wrinkling. If developed further, this could potentially lead to exciting new applications in the fields of artificial tissues, anti-fouling surfaces, optical coatings and tunable lenses".
In the relaxed atmosphere after the presentation Stephen enjoyed finding out more about DSM from the company’s researchers and sharing views on the role of science in the world. Stephen himself has been passionate about science ever since he recognized its potential to solve real-life problems at an early age. He told us:
Science in the service of the community
In high school I did a lot of community service and one project involved monitoring solar-powered trash compactors to solve a litter problem. This was my first experience of science with a practical application. It led me to take up engineering, which I viewed as the intersection between science and community service – my two passions.
Solar power also figured in my first research as an undergrad, a project to improve solar cell efficiency through material design. I found I really enjoyed the materials aspect of chemical engineering. I admire Stephanie Kwolek, who invented Kevlar, immensely and one of my aspirations is to invent a material that has similarly far-reaching applications.
I’ve been very fortunate in that my doctoral advisors, Professor Christopher Kloxin and Professor Norman Wagner, have given me lots of freedom to explore new ideas. The rapid, cost-efficient polymer wrinkle formation system we developed has many potential applications, besides solar cell efficiency improvement. A very interesting one we’re working on currently is a method to guide cell growth to create artificial organ tissue, using polymer wrinkling templates to align mesenchymal stem cells to create artificial cardiac muscle tissue, for example.
Today’s scientists need to take an active role in informing policies…
This is a fascinating field and I could imagine doing post-doctoral research in biomaterials. But once I’ve gained a few more years of research experience, I might be tempted to go for a policy fellowship with the government, because science and policy are intricately linked and I think it’s very important to have scientists inform national policies. Coming out of high school I really looked up to the former Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, who brought his scientific prowess to policy-making in just this way.
…and inspiring the scientists of the future
Then again, I really enjoy mentoring and outreach work. As scientists I believe we need to do more to communicate publicly on issues that affect the future of our world. We also need to inspire young people to see that science has real-world relevance and is not just boring theory.
So you see, I’m having a little difficulty deciding which way to go – but in the end what I want do as a scientist is contribute to society in the most impactful way I can.