Tom Schroeder Joins Wilson College Faculty After Completing Postdoctoral Studies at Harvard
By Raymond Jones
New assistant professor Tom Schroeder brings a world of experience to his new position in the Department of Textile Engineering, Chemistry and Science. And, in his case, that “world of experience” is not simply a figure of speech but a literal description of his background.
Schroeder (pronounced Shray-der) hails from the nation’s heartland. He grew up in Indiana, studied for a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Northwestern University, and then completed his Ph.D. work in chemical engineering at the University of Michigan.
He likes to joke that, geographically speaking, he spent all of his formative years “within a nice, equilateral Midwestern triangle anchored by Indianapolis, Chicago and Ann Arbor.”
That situation changed dramatically, however, when his Ph.D. advisor at Michigan was recruited to conduct research at the Adolphe Merkle Institute in Fribourg, Switzerland. Schroeder went along to Europe as part of the arrangement; so, after moving from one of the flattest areas on earth to one of the most mountainous, he had a unique opportunity to work with like-minded colleagues from around the globe.
Schroeder says the Institute functions as a kind of “research cluster” that attracts an extremely diverse group of academicians. Study initiatives there have a strong focus on nanoscience, the study of structures and materials on an ultra-small scale, and soft matter.
Studying the sea to advance materials science
Owing to his strong interest in soft tissue and soft matter, Schroeder has long been fascinated with the subject of how electric eels generate the shocks for which they are famous.
Specifically, he’s analyzed the interaction of soft tissues in eels to see if the chemical processes they use to generate voltage could be duplicated in a lab setting. In his words, “Could we arrange matter in a similar way to possibly power electrical devices?”
“My research philosophy is based on looking to nature and biology as a showcase of the things that are possible.”
This work has given him valuable insights into the interactions of membranes, gels and ionic circuitry. That subject matter can be complicated to explain, but his findings about eels can be explained simply. Schroeder and his colleagues found that even their best attempts to mimic the electrical output of a fully charged eel resulted in “high voltages, but very poor power generation.”
They had better luck generating useful power by mimicking marine animals called torpedo rays, which, he says, can deliver a more powerful shock than any eel. While the team was able to power small electronics with a ray-inspired setup, Schroeder acknowledges that humans won’t be recharging electric vehicles by hooking them up to a torpedo ray any time soon.
Schroeder is convinced that scientists can learn a lot simply by studying phenomena that occur naturally.
“My research philosophy,” he says, “is based on looking to nature and biology as a showcase of the things that are possible.”
Developing a team of like-minded researchers
His new research group at the Wilson College, with projects that include human-made systems inspired by bones, neurons and baleen, will continue this approach. Baleen is made out of keratin, the same protein that makes up human fingernails and hair. It’s found in the jaws of large whales and used to sieve prey.
Schroeder is grateful for his study and research opportunities at Michigan and the Merkle Institute. He brings another valuable credential to NC State, however, having done post-doctoral research in materials science at Harvard University. Schroeder finished up work at Harvard this summer, shortly before accepting the position at NC State, which will involve research, teaching and community service.
Right now, he’s excited about getting his research lab up and running during the fall semester.
He says professors in his position are typically recruited with an expectation they will create sustainable, long-term programs. This means not only attracting outside funding but also cultivating outside interest in real-world applications for the work being done.
“My hope,” he adds, “is that my research team will be successful in using complex polymer-crystal interactions to produce materials that are useful across the board.”
Schroeder says everyone he’s met at the Wilson College has been welcoming and generous with their time.
“I’ve always been fortunate to work in environments where interdisciplinary science and engineering are the norm,” he says. “I love being in that type of collaborative environment, and this is such a place.”