Various shots of interesting things around the Penn campus for In Focus. View of the front of the LRSM building at 33rd and Walnut. The modern sculpture in front is particularly unique. Credit: Michael Chien , Michael Chien

For 50 years, researchers at Penn’s Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter have been trying to figure out what “stuff” is really made of.

The center, home to interdisciplinary scientific research, was awarded a six-year, $21.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation this month. The grant is tied as one of the largest in the center’s history.

The grant will help fund four interdisciplinary research teams in addition to community and educational outreach programs for the center, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary this fall.

The LRSM hosts one of 30 branches of NSF’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, which serves as its research core.

Penn’s MRSEC received the largest grant of all the other centers that applied, according to Arjun Yodh, director of the LRSM and a Physics and Astronomy professor.

“It makes us the most successful,” he said.

The four groups, each led by two faculty members, aim to find answers to topics such as the effects of curvature and elasticity in soft materials and the effects of pressure on disordered solids like metallic glass and sand.

The four groups feature multiple collaborations between faculty of the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

“The NSF is specifically looking for people to get together from different disciplines to work together on really hard problems that couldn’t be done by a single group,” said Physics and Astronomy professor Andrea Liu, who will lead a research team along with Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics professor Rob Carpick.

Undergraduates will also benefit from the grant since the 40 professors in MRSEC regularly recruit assistants.

College junior Anshuman Pal conducted research with Liu this summer, where he was impressed at the productivity of the center. “There are many, many interesting projects going on. You either get results, or you don’t, and [the LRSM] is getting a lot,” he said.

“We have a really strong faculty who are very committed. It’s in the blood of the place, and it’s been going on for 50 years,” Yodh added.

The LRSM also offers programs such as science fairs and classes for local high schools and middle schools. The center has paired with local public schools, Drexel University, industries and other colleges.

Liu has given presentations and demonstrations at local high schools and aired on television shows broadcasted to public schools.

“The idea of education in this context is different. It’s education with research as an integral part,” Yodh said.

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