Creating new, dynamic materials for Earth and beyond

Astronauts must often live and work under frugal and unforgiving conditions. As travel to Mars becomes likely in the coming years, scientists and engineers are working to find new, innovative ways for interplanetary pioneers to both survive and thrive. 

One solution is to make materials that could be used in many different applications—materials that could, for example, become flexible or rigid as needed, or that could harness the heat from astronauts’ bodies to generate electricity. 

Nicholas Boynton is up for this challenge. While interning at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, a mentor there mentioned Pritzker Molecular Engineering. Boynton applied and found it was a perfect fit. Now he works at the intersection of two disciplines: polymer science and electrochemistry. 

As a graduate student in the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) at the University of Chicago, co-advised by Profs. Shrayesh Patel and Stuart Rowan, he’s developing functional materials that have a huge range of properties. And as a NASA Space Technology Graduate Research Fellow, he’s using that knowledge to help develop materials for future space missions. 

“At UChicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, we solve real-world problems by working across disciplines. We care about making an impact. If that's your goal, then this is the place for you,” Boynton said. 

Distilling problems down into what matters 

Boynton participates in PME’s Science Communications Program, where he attends workshops and presents his work to middle school students. “It really pushes you to realize that you don’t know your science well enough unless you can explain to a range of people, including kids,” he said. 

Boynton has also participated in PME’s peer mentorship program, serves on PME’s Graduate Student Council, and plans to join the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation’s Innovation Fund Associates program, which groups science and engineering graduate students with business and law students to perform due diligence on innovative ventures coming out of the UChicago ecosystem. The experience could help inform his career goals, he said. He’s currently considering a career in industry research or as a professor. 

“At PME, we work on huge problems with abundant factors at play, and we need to distill those problems down into what matters and come up with a solution,” he said. “I really like that process—thinking broadly about a problem and communicating solutions to a broad audience—and so I hope to use those skills in whatever career I choose.” 

Click here for more information on the Molecular Engineering PhD and PME’s other world-class programs.