U.S. Department of Defense selects two teams from Brown for DEPSCoR grants

The teams were among 28 selected this year through DEPSCoR, which is designed to strengthen basic research infrastructure at higher education institutions and propel forward science in areas important to U.S. defense.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — As part of its Defense Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research program, the U.S. Department of Defense has awarded grants to two projects led by Brown University researchers.

Brown faculty members Jia Li and Mauro Rodriguez will serve as principal investigators for the respective projects studying electrons in 2D materials and theoretical modeling on soft materials that may one day be used to better predict the response of the human body to blunt impact.

The grants will provide approximately $600,000 in total for each project over the course of the next three years.

The support comes as part of a Department of Defense effort to bolster science and engineering research in areas important to U.S. defense through a research competition known as DEPSCoR. Established in 1994, the program is designed to strengthen basic research infrastructure at higher education institutions in states or territories that have traditionally been underutilized. This year, the agency awarded $18 million in DEPSCoR awards to 28 academic teams from 15 states. The 28 projects, including the two based at Brown, were selected from 115 white papers that qualified for the competition.

“The idea behind DEPSCoR is for the Department of Defense to cultivate and tap into an ecosystem of researchers found in states eligible for DEPSCoR,” said Jill Pipher, Brown’s vice president for research and a professor of mathematics. “Brown researchers have a lot to offer the DOD and the nation when it comes to basic research, including where learnings from the work can be applicable and critical to national security. We are grateful to the Department of Defense and especially to U.S. Senator Jack Reed for his continued leadership and support of DEPSCoR.”

Reed has represented Rhode Island in the U.S. Senate since 1996 and is chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. The subcommittee secured $20 million for DEPSCoR in 2023’s Consolidated Appropriations Act, ensuring that universities in DEPSCoR states like Rhode Island can compete to perform cutting-edge basic research and partner with defense labs.

“I’m pleased DOD recognizes the breakthrough potential these projects have and is investing in not only Brown University, but the state’s research ecosystem,” Reed said. “DEPSCoR is a capacity builder that can help create new commercialization and development opportunities right here in Rhode Island.”

Li, an assistant professor of physics, will lead work probing and characterizing electron nematicity — a phenomenon in which electrons align themselves in a symmetry-breaking pattern under the influence of a unit of electrical charge called a Coulomb interaction — in the 2D material multilayer graphene. Understanding this interaction can serve as a foundation for future quantum material engineering. 

The project, “Probing electron nematicity in multilayer graphene heterostructures,” is a collaboration with Brenda Rubenstein, an associate professor of chemistry, who will serve as co-principal investigator. The pair will work together to study the nematicity of the electrons, which is believed to be an important ingredient in unconventional superconductivity. Li will be building a system to physically measure the nematicity through experiments while Rubenstein, a theorist in quantum chemistry, will build a model to simulate the interactions and measurements.

“Through our combined effort, we hope to gain a deeper understanding of how electron interaction gives rise to electronic nematicity, a behavior and arrangement in material that can influence how well an electrical current will be conducted in a material in different directions,” Li said. “The general direction that we're going in is to better understand electronics interaction and its influence on other quantum phases of the intriguing material platform of graphene.”

Rodriguez, an assistant professor of engineering, is leading the theoretical modeling effort on soft materials. The project, “Theoretical modeling of non-spherical inertial cavitation for anisotropic soft matter rheometry,” is a collaboration with David Henann, an associate professor of solid mechanics.

The work aims to advance a method for characterizing how materials, like biological tissue, become deformed when they are hit by blunt objects at high speeds. The technique, which originated at Brown, is called Inertial Microcavitation Rheometry and involves generating a single bubble, in this case using a laser, in a soft gel to measure the properties of the material at high speeds and strains. The researchers will use modern statistical modeling techniques, numerical simulations and theory to determine the properties of different kinds of soft materials and their response to the impact.

“Our ability to characterize response of soft matter at high strain rates is critically important to then begin to predict the sustained damage due to blast loading or blunt impacts,” Rodriguez said. “This basic research is at the cross-section between fluid mechanics, solid mechanics, soft matter and biomedical applications which started at Brown, and we now continue that story and aim to further advance this technique and field.”