Shape-shifters to the Rescue

Drawing inspiration from the natural world, shape-shifting soft materials open up new possibilities in biomedicine, data storage and beyond.

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If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, then Eugenia Kumacheva is paying respect to a true master. A professor of chemistry at the University of Toronto, her laboratory develops soft materials to mimic biological responses found in nature.

In particular, she is interested in materials that can be programmed to change their shape or size in response to triggers such as light or temperature. These shape-shifting materials that adapt to save energy and space have diverse applications, ranging from biomedicine to data storage.

One of Kumacheva’s goals is to make optical data storage more compact, which she has applied to biometric identification for security purposes. She is also developing smart materials to cut off the blood supply to tumours by taking advantage of their unusually high acidity: her materials expand to block blood capillaries in response to the acidic tumour environment.

With a muse as vast as the natural world, shape-shifting inspiration can be found anywhere.

“I’ve just returned from Costa Rica, and we were in the rainforest, and all of a sudden I saw this amazing plant,″ says Kumacheva. ″It folds up and then opens up, depending on time of the day, and I thought that it would be good to make such a material because it can serve many applications. For example, saving energy and space: make it fold and unfold depending on the particular state.”

Nocturnal leaf and flower closure is pretty common in the plant world, including plants like poppies and crocuses; tucking themselves in at night helps protect them from the elements. But being able to design and control materials to open and close on cue could be used in many applications.

And with so much to inspire us, and new discoveries happening all the time, the possibilities are limitless.

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Eugenia Kumacheva received her M.Sc. degree from the Institute of Chemical Technology (now Technical University) in Saint Petersburg (Russia). She did her PhD research in Physical Chemistry of Polymers at the Institute of Physical Chemistry (Russian Academy of Science). After her defence, she joined the Department of Chemistry at the Moscow State University.

In 1991-1994, Kumacheva was a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Professor Jacob Klein at the Weizmann Institute of Science (Israel), where she studied surface forces in thin layers of simple liquids and polymers. In 1995 she joined the group of Professor Mitchell Winnik in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Toronto, where she was involved in studies of morphology of multicomponent polymer systems.

In 1996, Kumacheva joined the Department of Chemistry at the University of Toronto as an Assistant Professor. In 2005 she became a Full Professor. She spent her first sabbatical in 2002 in Harvard University with Professor George Whitesides. She was Visiting Professor in Oxford University (2003), the University Louis Pasteur (Strasbourg) (2006), Moscow State University (2009), the University of Cambridge (2010) and the University of Bayreuth (Germany) (2011).

Kumacheva serves or served on Advisory Boards in the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research (Germany), Waterloo Institute of Nanotechnology (Canada), Advanced Science Institute (RIKEN) (Japan), Brookhaven National Laboratory (USA), Triangle Materials Science and Engineering Center (USA), and the Leibnitz Institute (Germany).