By Will Cushman
Materials science is at the beginning of major transformation driven by the integration of data science and machine learning technologies. This integration is creating the new field of materials informatics, which applies computational and machine learning tools to characterizing and discovering materials. To efficiently realize the full potential of materials informatics, it is essential to educate today’s students in this novel and interdisciplinary area. That’s just one reason why a newly expanded summer fellowship in materials informatics presents such an exciting opportunity for a group of University of Wisconsin-Madison engineering undergrads.
The Citrine NextGen fellowship, with additional support from the National Science Foundation, the UW MRSEC, and the UW-Madison Graduate School will support nine students (six from UW-Madison, two from University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, and one from Hope College) to develop critical skills in the burgeoning field of materials informatics. The fellowship will not only pay undergrads to conduct materials research on campus, it will also introduce them to the world of technology startups and Silicon Valley.
With a $400,000 commitment from Schmidt Futures, Citrine Informatics is sponsoring the fellows from UW-Madison and several other institutions. A relatively young Silicon Valley startup, Citrine was founded in 2014 to accelerate the development and use of new materials by harnessing the power of machine learning principles. Citrine and other materials informatics efforts have blossomed since the Material Genome Initiative—a public-private research partnership to integrate digital technologies into materials development—was announced in 2011. Citrine sees the academic community as a crucial partner is this endeavor, says the startup’s community manager, Josh Tappan.
“One thing we’ve noticed is that for us to promote materials informatics, we need to show students what it is and how to apply it,” says Tappan.
To that end, Citrine self-funded a pilot fellowship in 2017, which paid four undergraduate fellows to conduct research while learning and utilizing the tools of the trade. One of those four was UW-Madison materials science and engineering senior Vanessa Nilsen, who had already gained some skills in materials informatics via the department’s Informatics Skunkworks group when she learned about the opportunity. Nilsen says the fellowship intrigued her because she was curious about how her research skills could be applied beyond a strictly academic setting.
Through the course of the summer, Nilsen remained in Madison and met regularly on campus with faculty mentor Professor Dane Morgan as she applied her informatics skills to better understanding metallic glasses. She also learned the art of working remotely as she collaborated with colleagues at Citrine’s California headquarters, who provided coaching and learning opportunities. Though the bulk of her research took place on campus—as will be the case with this year’s fellows—the fellowship also paid for her to take a trip to Citrine and experience the culture of Silicon Valley firsthand.
“I had a great experience with the fellowship,” says Nilsen. “One of the best aspects of it for me personally was that I feel confident that I could have a career after I graduate in a field where I fit and with people who I fit in with. I made great connections through the fellowship.” Those connections have endured, as Nilsen has remained in touch with Citrine as she develops a standalone course for training in materials informatics and mentors half a dozen other students in the subject.
For his part, Morgan is excited to see the Citrine NextGen Fellowship program grow and fund even more UW-Madison undergrads this year.
“Watching from the outside, it seems to me that this fellowship has been a foundational experience in Vanessa’s education,” Morgan says. “It’s given her a level of expertise and confidence in this area, and she’s since led training efforts in the Skunkworks group. I see a direct impact of the fellowship experience. I am looking forward to many such transformative experiences for other participants.”
This year, fellows from UW-Madison will join students from Carnegie Mellon University, Colorado School of Mines, North Carolina State University and Texas A&M University, which will allow them to interact not only with local peers and colleagues at Citrine but to get a sense of the inter-institutional collaborations that are common in higher education. Morgan says the local fellows will focus on developing tools that automate the analysis of images that are taken in materials science experiments. It’s an important problem to solve, Morgan says.
“Many tools of materials characterization are becoming so much faster and more powerful that they generate data on a scale that is outstripping our human ability to analyze it,” says Morgan. “We want to train machine vision tools to recognize features in image data automatically.”
The fellows at UW Madison will also be participants in the UW-Madison Informatics Skunkworks, a group dedicated to realizing the potential of informatics for science and engineering. Founded by Morgan in 2015, the Informatics Skunkworks has engaged over 70 undergraduates in project-based research on informatics for science and engineering, learning advanced data science and machine learning skills, expanding their domain specific knowledge, and growing their experience of working with teams, faculty, and industry. The Informatics Skunkworks has recently expanded to Hope College and University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez, both of which have contributed fellows to this year’s team at UW.