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When curiosity leads to improved bikes, boogie boards, and Batsuits

Whether it’s a boogie board, bicycles, or Bruce Wayne’s Batsuit, the evolution of how objects look and function can be traced back to one question: “What if?” What if I create a different kind of surfboard, one that doesn’t require as much training? Or what if Batman is trapped in a dark room and needs to see?

Katherine Ziemer, associate vice provost for curriculum and professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, said that “What if?” is one of her favorite phrases. And it also leads to another question in Ziemer’s world of materials science: “Why?”

Ziemer discussed her curiosity on Wednesday afternoon in the Raytheon Amphitheater, delivering the latest lecture in Northeastern’s “Minds over Matters: NUterm Faculty Speaker Series.” The weekly series features top faculty scholars who discuss their research and examine innovation, new discoveries, and timely topics of global importance.

“‘What if we’ is the creativity question,” Ziemer said. “It makes us open our minds a little bit, and how exciting is that?”

Ziemer explained how she often asks these questions in reference to how materials can improve the world around us, whether it’s monitoring brain activity, cleaning up water, or improving telecommunications.

To find answers, Ziemer turns to the atom, the smallest unit of matter. Through her research she attempts to determine if she can control atoms and how they combine— and therefore control the characteristics of the materials they make up.

“If I want to control atoms, I have to understand why they do what they do,” Ziemer said. “I am looking at using atoms to do new and different things.”

One way she has done this is through her work with the U.S. Navy to improve communications across various platforms, specifically during combat situations. The Navy asked Ziemer “what if” she came up with a communication system that was lighter in weight and required less power but still enabled the level of communication the Navy needed.

When Ziemer looked at the amount of power needed for the communication system to work, she noticed the various types of chips required to generate and control the magnetic and electric fields.

“So our idea was to put those magnetic and electrical materials together, enabling them to talk to each other directly and therefore eliminating the amount of mass and devices they needed to have,” Ziemer explained.

Christo Wilson, an assistant professor in the College of Computer and Information Science, will deliver the next talk in the speaker series on Monday at 4 p.m. He will discuss measuring and understanding personalization of Web services.

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