Prof. Van Vliet earned her Sc.B. in Materials Science & Engineering from Brown University (1998) and her PhD in Materials Science & Engineering from MIT (2002). At MIT, Van Vliet was a National Defense Science & Engineering Graduate Fellow, was President of the Graduate Materials Council, and won the MRS Gold Medal for her thesis research. Her MIT thesis work with Prof. Subra Suresh established the experimental and computational basis for predicting homogeneous nucleation of dislocations (plasticity carrying defects) in crystalline metals. She then conducted postdoctoral research with Dr. Marsha Moses at Boston Children’s Hospital, where she developed new experimental approaches to measure the effects of mechanical strain on cells that comprise blood vessels.
The Laboratory for Material Chemomechanics is focused on understanding the coupling between chemistry and mechanics at material interfaces. The overarching motivation for this study of chemomechanics is the biological cell. There is increasing experimental evidence that changes in the local mechanical environment (e.g., material stiffness or applied force) and chemical environment (e.g., pH or biomolecule concentrations) of cells correlate with changes in cell shape and function. Although the individual proteins at this interface are now well studied, the mechanisms by which mechanical and chemical signals are exchanged across this interface to impact cell functions are not fully understood. The aim is to elucidate this chemomechanical coupling at the molecular scale, leveraging the perspectives and tools of materials physics. The group focuses on cell interfaces and environments relevant to wound healing and inflammation, cancer, and stem/precursor cell development. To aid the development of new tools and models of such complex interfaces, they also study engineered nanocomposites and nanostructures that share this strong chemomechanical coupling.
The Van Vliet group investigates material chemomechanics through both experiments and simulations, which are integrated among three main efforts. First, the group analyzes chemomechanics at the cell-material interface. The group seeks to understand the mechanisms by which the mechanical and biochemical properties of extracellular microenvironments modulate cell adhesion and biological processes. For example, the effects of substrata elastic moduli on adhesion of eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells.
Another major research thrust of the lab is studying the chemomechanics of complex gels. Both the interior and exterior of biological cells comprise materials described as crowded gels and polymer networks, often existing in metastable states that are perturbed via external cues. The group explores chemomechanics in synthetic gels that either (1) interface with biological cells, and thus serve as a tool to modulate cell environments; or (2) are not intended as biomaterials, but serve as excellent physical models of such complex biopolymers.
The final research area of the Van Vliet group is researching the chemomechanics of defected crystals and nanocomposite interfaces. The interfaces within subcellular structures – and also between cells & adjacent materials – are dynamic. Both biologists and material scientists have referred to these interfacial regions as interphases, characterized by unique nanostructue and viscoelastic behavior. The Laboratory for Material Chemochanics develops new computational models and experiments to characterize the chemomechanical evolution of such nanoscale interphases in engineered materials.