The Future is Now
The new director of the Advanced Materials and Liquid Crystal Institute sees a bright future for the institute, as it takes on a broader range of research and collaborates with nontraditional partners to develop the next phases of advanced materials science.
By Lisa Abraham
The flat screen television on your wall, the laptop on your desk and the smartphone in your pocket may be the first items that come to mind when you think about liquid crystal displays. Yet the future of liquid crystal science is heading in new directions, predicts Torsten Hegmann, PhD, who was named the new director of the Advanced Materials and Liquid Crystal Institute (AMLCI) in July, following a national search.
“Liquid crystal research is moving more toward biology and materials that respond to their environment in unique and unexpected ways,” he says. “These are the new frontiers for the field.”
“Liquid crystal research is moving more toward biology and materials that respond to their environment in unique and unexpected ways. These are the new frontiers for the field.” — Torsten Hegmann, PhD, Director, AMLCI
Hegmann, who has been associate director of the institute since 2018 and a faculty member at Kent State since 2011, says the future of liquid crystals will be its applications in biology and medical science as well as sensors and active, responsive systems—which already are part of his research focus.
“Dr. Hegmann is a highly accomplished researcher in the fields of liquid crystals as well as biomaterials and nanomaterials,” says Paul DiCorleto, PhD, vice president for Research and Sponsored Programs at Kent State.
“He has not only made important contributions to our fundamental knowledge in these fields, but he has also shown entrepreneurial spirit and a passion for the societal impact of his research.”
DiCorleto notes that Hegmann has co-founded a company [with his wife, Elda Hegmann, PhD, assistant professor of biological sciences], Torel LLC, that uses liquid crystal sensors to detect toxic gases and vapors. The sensors can help save the lives of firefighters and other first responders.
“He has demonstrated a true commitment to multidisciplinary collaborative approaches to answering important questions, which is a major goal of this institute,” adds DiCorleto.
A native of Germany, Hegmann was working as an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, when he came to a seminar at Kent State’s Liquid Crystal Institute in 2011. He learned of the state-sponsored Ohio Research Scholars program to attract young international research talent to the state, applied and was hired the same year.
Hegmann says coming to the Liquid Crystal Institute was an exciting opportunity: “This is where a lot of the research in this field started.”
Kent State’s Liquid Crystal Institute was founded in 1965 by Glenn H. Brown, a chemistry professor and pioneer in the field of liquid crystal research; later the institute was named in his honor. It is regarded globally as the birthplace of liquid crystal displays and the world’s first research center focused on the basic and applied science of liquid crystals.
In fall 2018, the Liquid Crystal Institute was renamed the Advanced Materials and Liquid Crystal Institute and its focus expanded to embrace a broad array of advanced materials research and science, in addition to liquid crystal research.
Kent State President Todd Diacon says he is confident Hegmann is the right leader to guide the institute as it expands its focus. “Liquid crystal research is part of the backbone of Kent State,” Diacon says. “Dr. Hegmann understands its importance to the university’s history and shares my commitment that Kent State remain a world leader in the research of the newest phases of advanced materials science.”
The Hegmann Group research lab already has cross-collaboration expertise in medicine, pharmacology, nanochemistry and engineering, and Hegmann says encouraging the institute to work collaboratively with more nontraditional partners will be a key goal.
Those partners will include biologists, materials chemists, biophysicists, engineers, members of Kent State’s Design Innovation Initiative and the university’s Brain Health Research Institute, of which Hegmann is a member.
“Some of my own research is in nanomaterials used for drug delivery to the brain,” he says. “It’s a logical link for me—the combination of materials science and the brain. There are, perhaps, many more connections we can make between the brain and materials science, especially liquid crystals, which are regarded as a model system for cell membranes.”
Hegmann says he is anxious to see all researchers collaborating more with other sciences, and he is looking forward to the “collaboratories” in the terrace level of the Integrated Sciences Building, which are scheduled for completion in fall 2020. The space is being designed and created for scientists from various fields to work together and conduct joint research across multiple disciplines.
Demonstrating those research links and how they benefit each other will take the institute to a higher level, he says, and make additional research dollars more easily attainable.
Key to increased research funding is being able to show that the institute has multifaceted research that crosses varied domains, Hegmann explains. While the institute is adept at soft matter and liquid crystals, expanding research into affiliated materials and engineering to complement existing research is a must.
“We need to build critical mass in other materials research domains to complement this existing liquid crystal, soft matter expertise.”
Dr. Hegmann's main goals for the Advanced Materials and Liquid Crystal Institute:
- Increasing the institute’s distinctive role in the future of liquid crystal and materials science to inspire a higher level of competitiveness for research funding.
- Elevating the level of symposiums held at Kent State to national and international prominence beginning in 2020.
- Streamlining and modernizing the look of the institute’s buildings and laboratories, so that they reflect modern materials science.
- Renewing the research infrastructure so that all instruments and equipment are state-of-the-art. The purchase of such equipment will be tied to better fundraising.