Real Scientists is at the University of Virginia with Matthew Diasio (@MatSciMatt), a PhD candidate in materials science and engineering who will be defending later this summer. Go, Matthew! His research focuses on the exfoliation of graphite in liquids to produce graphene and he has also studied polymer coatings and nanoparticles. When he’s not in the lab, you may find him busy working with other grad students in policy and science communication. Matthew was a vice chair of the Graduate Engineering Student Council and part of the first Graduate Legislative Advisory Committee at UVA, advocating for better graduate policies and organizing educational, professional development, and social events for graduate and professional students. He does outreach activities through NanoDays in his department and organizes science pub nights and trivia nights with Cville Comm-UNI-ty. He’s also very busy with the Science Policy Initiative, working to create opportunities for early-career scientists and engineers to be involved in science policy in state and local government. We asked Matthew a few questions about his journey so far.
When did you get into science?
I’ve been interested in science since I was a kid. I loved hearing or reading about new discoveries and that there were always new things to learn about the world around us. I remember getting a big astronomy children’s book for my birthday one year in elementary school and I ended up reading it all the time, for years. But what was really cool was when I realized it would go out of date over time. As I read magazines, news stories, and newer books that had more updated information from new research, I would sometimes stack them next to the book so I knew to make my own “corrections”.
Where did you go from there?
I went to college as a physics major. But I hadn’t really understood what engineering was before, and it was really popular at Rice (where I did undergrad), so I took some engineering classes freshman year because it seemed like another interesting way to use physics. My engineering classes ended up being some of my favorites, and I got really interested in nanomaterials after a chemistry seminar discussed how they could help solve some of the biggest challenges we face as a society. While I stayed in my physics major, my research was all in materials. I worked in a physical chemistry lab studying polymers and participated in two NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates where I worked on different carbon nanotube-based devices. Those were all really fun and I knew I wanted to go into materials science for grad school.
What are you currently working on?
I study ways to make graphene. You may not have heard of graphene, but you have heard what I make it from: graphite, aka your pencil lead. Graphite is made up of trillions of trillions of layers of carbon atoms, and each layer has a hexagonal pattern like chicken wire. A single layer of these carbon atoms is called graphene, and it is one of the strongest materials humanity has ever discovered, as well as one of the best conductors of heat and electricity. While the atoms in a single graphene layer are strongly bound together, the different layers are really easy to break off from each other. In fact, people have even done it by mixing graphite with water and dish soap in a kitchen blender! I study how different physical properties of the liquids you mix graphite with affect the graphene you make in (very high-tech) blenders. After making it, I’m also interested in ways to mix graphene into other materials.
“Blending” graphene is one of the most promising ways to mass produce it. All of graphene’s impressive properties (strength, conductivity, absorbing pollutants!, it might even be used for biomaterials) could make it useful for so many things, but only if we can produce enough of it to actually make those products. My research will help others figure out how to better produce the graphene they need, and hopefully help them make more of it.
What motivates you about materials science?
I love materials science because you can choose from so many things to focus on at a time. You get to think about so many different parts of physical science. Sometimes you have a mechanics problem, other times you need to think about electromagnetism, and other times you need to understand chemical properties, or other things altogether. You get to think at different scales, too. Are we talking about the atom? A crystal grain? The whole material? The whole device or product it goes in?
And, of course like that seminar taught me, there’s all the societal issues materials touch on. New materials and new ways to use them enable whole new technologies. We can fly because we learned how to make aluminum alloys. We have tiny computers everywhere because we learned how to manipulate silicon precisely. But we also have to reckon with the negative impacts of the material choices we have made. How do we deal with plastic pollution? How can we better recycle or dispose of the heavy metals that are in discarded electronics? How can we obtain new materials in ways that don’t harm the environment or the people mining or processing them? Materials science obviously can’t solve these problems on its own, but it will help us as a society figure out how we can solve them.
What do you get up to when you’re not in the lab?
I’ve been really involved with the Graduate Engineering Student Council here at the University of Virginia, where I help organize both fun social events and professional and academic development events for other grad students and advocate for improvements to graduate programs. You can also see me work on science policy with the Science Policy Initiative at UVA and with other grad students across the US in the National Science Policy Network. Right now, I’m working on a project to get graduate students and post-doctoral scholars more involved in science policy in Virginia’s state government. I’m also part of UVA’s oldest literary society, the Jefferson Society, which hosts really cool guest speakers, like a poet laureate and one of the top diplomats who negotiated the Paris climate change agreement.
If you could spend time doing anything right now, what would it be?
I’m finishing up my dissertation, so this feels both close and yet so far away right now! Right now, I really want to go to a beach and swim and also spend some time relaxing on the sand and have nothing to do, reading a book that isn’t about my research.
Matthew Diasio, welcome to Real Scientists!