Face Time with a Renowned Interface Expert

Avi Ullman, the director of NYU-Poly’s Institute for Engineered Interfaces, talks about his newly renovated space, the medical applications of his work and more

The excitement swirling around the eighth floor of Rogers Hall is palpable—and well justified. The newly renovated space is now home to the NYU-Poly Institute for Engineered Interfaces’ state-of-the-art facilities, which include a synthetic chemistry lab and a cell culture lab. To understand why the project, funded in part by a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation, is the subject of so much enthusiasm, you need to know what engineered interfaces are and what applications they have in the field of medicine and beyond.

Avi Ullman, who directs the institute, which is typically referred to as the IEI, explained, “Engineered interfaces are those that have designed and controlled physical and chemical properties, such as wettability, adhesion, interactions with other materials, controlling crystallization, and chemical reactivity.” He continued, “Interfaces are ubiquitous in nature. Solutions to almost all technological and medical problems require understanding and controlling interfacial structure and interactions.”

Ullman, who earned his doctoral degree from the Weizmann Institute in Israel and served as a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University, joined NYU-Poly in 1994 after ten years at the Kodak Corporate Research Laboratories. His area of interest has long been engineered interfaces, which, he points out, can be planar or spherical.

The IEI’s core mission will be research, with a strong emphasis on applications. Ullman explained, “Three main research areas are proposed: smart (switchable) interfaces, active interfaces, and sensors. These are unifying themes that provide the basic science and engineering foundation that are required for solving the ever emerging problems in medicine and technology.”

The IEI includes members from not only multiple departments within Poly but from the NYU Dental and Medical Schools as well, and Ullman believes the new space will encourage cross-disciplinary collaboration and cooperation. He said, “The Institute will serve as a hub for addressing critical technological and medical problems, promoting collaboration between scientists/engineers/doctors and specialists who know what are the needed breakthroughs for advancing their areas of practice. Teams of scientists, engineers and medical professionals from across the NYU community will work together to solve critical, still-open problems.”
An institute of this type is crucial, he asserted. “Interfacial science and engineering is highly interdisciplinary,” Ulman said. “It encompasses diverse activities, from studies of fundamental properties of interfaces, to development of new medical procedures, and new materials with unique properties for myriad applications.”

The thrill of having the IEI’s brand-new, cutting-edge labs on campus pales in comparison to the thrill of seeing those applications developed and realizing what they could mean to the medical world. “[We might be able to] prevent and find solutions to inflammation, understand how interfaces between an implant and surrounding tissues affect the healing process, produce nanocomposites with superior properties, create advanced chemical and biological sensors, control lateral distribution of molecules, and produce anticorrosion coatings, to name a few,” Ullman said.

While some might find sharing space with fellow scientists to be an imposition, Ullman is pleased by the arrangement. “Shared space provides flexibility, efficiency, and cost effectiveness,” he held. “Moreover, students from different groups working together also learn from each other.” (“Naturally, when unique instrumentation is required for research, individual laboratories do make sense,” he added.)

In the lead-up to the ribbon-cutting for the renovated space, NYU-Poly chemistry and chemical engineering merged to a single department. “That was an excellent move,” Ullman stated. “Our department has the opportunity to become one of the top at NYU. A department that will focus on chemical, biological, and materials science and engineering can form collaborations in both education and research with chemistry and soft matter physics in Washington Square, as well as with the medical and dental schools.”

But Ullman has his sights set far beyond Washington Square. “A global university [such as we have here] is a brilliant idea. As inexpensive Internet higher education expands, traditional universities would be able to better compete if they offer a unique education and research experience, beyond the classroom teaching. A global university gives our students a rich tapestry of opportunities for professional and personal development and growth. These will impact their careers for the rest of their lives.”