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Danielle Mai
Spotlight

Danielle Mai

Assistant Professor
Chemical Engineering
Story originally published on May 2020
I’m a biopolymer engineer, which means I tinker with molecules that are the building materials of life.

Biopolymers are everywhere: In our own bodies, the biopolymer keratin makes our hair stiff, and the biopolymer collagen makes our skin stretchy. Even DNA, which packages our genetic code, is a biopolymer.

In my lab, we take these natural chemical building blocks, and we figure out how to put them together in different ways. How can we rearrange what nature gives us in order to create materials with new functions and new properties? Can we make an artificial muscle that moves without having any living cells inside? Can we understand what makes a knee joint slippery to create a better biopolymer to repair a damaged knee? We’re really interested in creating different types of materials to advance human health.

As a kid, I always enjoyed testing things and tinkering with things, but I didn’t understand what it meant to be an engineer. It wasn’t until a summer internship in college that I discovered my passion for chemical engineering research.

I was developing new flame-proof polymer foams. At the time, these materials were used in seats of trains, and we wanted to decrease their density so that they could be used in airplanes. In just a few months of playing in the lab, trying new things, and failing fast, we found a solution that cut the density in half. It was an incredible moment for me: We had found a way to do something that nobody else had done yet. We had discovered something really useful. That’s what hooked me, the thrill of creating something nobody else in the world had seen.

Despite what Newton may have us believe, discovery isn’t something that just hits you on the head. You have to constantly think about how things work on a basic level. In the case of my internship, I spent weeks thinking about how individual molecules would behave in a specific material. In my work today, I wrestle with similar questions–but no matter how challenging it gets, that thrill of creating something new keeps me going.

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