Amanda Mills Advances E-textiles, Encourages Next Generation of Researchers
By Mary Giuffrida
Assistant Research Professor Amanda Mills has always had NC State on her mind, so it’s no surprise that after graduating from Mississippi State University with a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering, Dr. Mills earned both her master’s and doctorate in mechanical engineering right here in Raleigh.
“I was really hoping for NC State,” Mills says. “So when I applied and got in, it was really exciting.”
NC State may have been a longtime goal for Mills, but research in textiles was not a part of the plan. Initially, she was part of a research team at the ASSIST Center, a recently opened research center focused on wearable and smart technologies for health monitoring, led by Professor Yong Zhu. There, she helped research and develop stretchable electronics using silver nanowires. However, she soon found herself frustrated with the lack of real world application.
“I realized I was frustrated with the packaging of what we were working on,” Mills says. “We’re making these devices, and they work really well, but how do you integrate them into a real product?”
It was these questions that led her to Professor Jesse Jur, whom she had met at the ASSIST Center. Dr. Jur was leading a project focused on mapping thermal energy harvesting locations on the body.
After finishing her master’s with Zhu, Mills transitioned to working with Jur in his lab at the Wilson College of Textiles for her Ph.D. There she studied the integration of textiles and body mapping, developing a knit shirt that could detect heat transfer.
After earning her Ph.D., Mills stayed at NC State as a research associate and project manager for the Nano-Extended Textiles (NEXT) Research Group.
The experience sparked a passion for curbing misconceptions surrounding higher education and research. She is currently the Senior Design co-director at the Wilson College, facilitating the intensive year-long projects completed by seniors in textile engineering and textile technology in collaboration with industry leaders. Mills has also collaborated with the Research Experience for Undergraduates to provide opportunities for undergraduate students in the department of textile engineering, chemistry and science to contribute to faculty and graduate student research. She organized workshops that taught students how to prepare for job interviews, curate their resumes and identify unconscious bias in research, all in the hopes of encouraging more students to consider graduate school as a part of their futures.
“I feel like there’s a misconception around research,” Mills says. “Students feel like they have to be perfect, and while, yes, you need good grades, research is more about resilience and problem-solving.”
Mills feels every student deserves a chance to take part in the research process. While the environment is not right for everyone, she says no student should feel deterred from experiencing the process and exploring the research that they find engaging.
More recently, the path of Mills’ own research has shifted. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic meant universities transitioned to online learning. This shift brought a gap in how textiles are taught to the attention of the researchers.
“The thing about textiles is how tangible they are, and how you can assess a lot of their properties by feel,” Mills explains. “When you’re remote, you can’t feel a textile through a computer.”
Caitlin Knowles, one of the NEXT graduate students, took the initiative to apply for a grant which would be used to look for solutions to this remote learning divide. The research funded by this grant has turned into a large virtual reality effort by the NEXT Research Group. Their goal is to create tools which would allow students to gather data in the same way they might by handling a textile, but in a remote setting. This textile handling effort is being led by another NEXT graduate student, Zoë Rosenberg, who just recently passed her Ph.D. defense.
“We’re looking into how we can simulate textiles,” Mills says. “That way you can still get that tangibility and data from the textile that you can use to make design decisions without being physically present.”
Along with bridging the gap between in-person and virtual learning, the NEXT Research Group has also been focusing on sustainability.
“We can address sustainability, and we can address smart textile manufacturing, by making it more domestic, but in doing so you have to look at how we handle textiles.” Mills says.
The research group is investigating ways of manipulating textiles using automation. They are studying how textiles can be moved and placed with accuracy in an automated way. This would reduce the need for human operators, allowing textile manufacturing to be moved domestically and in turn subjecting it to stricter environmental monitoring.
Working on big-picture issues such as sustainability and projects with real-world impacts are incredibly rewarding, which is why Mills encourages students to take every opportunity available.
“Don’t be afraid of failure,” Mills says. “So many people will hold themselves back from opportunities if they don’t feel it’s perfect, because that’s what’s comfortable. Research isn’t comfortable, but it’s worth it.”