Prof. Olmsted Named APS Councilor

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Prof. Peter Olmsted of the ISM was recently named a Councilor for the American Physical Society (APS), representing the Division of Soft Matter (DSOFT). A long-time member of the APS, involved in soft matter and a host of other divisions, Prof. Olmsted was chosen for the position both because of his history of involvement in promoting and administrating soft matter physics, and his perspective shaped by a variety of disciplines. Among many roles including helping to set up the soft matter group for the UK Institute of Physics, serving as ISM Director from 2015-2021, and more, this is his most recent role in representing Georgetown and the soft matter community.

Prof. Olmsted sat down to talk about the new position and soft matter physics. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Can you outline a little bit about what the position is and what the role entails?

There are many councilors for the APS, drawn from the different subject groups and units. I’m there as the representative for the soft matter division. Councilors get to be on various committees, either assigned or by choice, to deal with a lot of roles of APS. These can include policies related to the membership, policies for increasing how well we do physics as a community, and how well we reach out to the world as a physics community and provide advice about physics. Example committees include the status of women in physics, the status of minorities in physics, human rights for scientists worldwide, and more.

Another role is discussing the policy for awards the APS bestows, making sure to choose from as broad a representation of deserving people and institutions as possible, putting structures in place so that people are recognized for what they do in a proper way. Additionally, the APS feels it has a responsibility to communicate the science that we do both to enthuse the public, but also for policy reasons. If various governments and institutions put forth policies that are not based on, or ignore, established science, that is a problem both for the endeavor of science and also for what institutions should be doing. Education is also a very important mission of the APS. Councilors will discuss decisions about how the APS interacts with the education of the science of physics, making sure that physics is appropriately represented and supported at all levels and different university departments.

You have long had an interest and involvement in soft matter research, from your PhD to leading the Soft Matter Physics group while at Leeds, and here at Georgetown. What initially drew you to physics and soft matter?

When I went to do my PhD, I first wanted to do semiconductor or superconductor physics, but my PhD advisor was a statistical physicist and suggested liquid crystals, which is what stuck. I found it very interesting that soft matter is not a core area of physics, but it draws from the ideas of mechanics, quantum mechanics, relativity, statistical mechanics, electromagnetism, and so on. In my postdoc, I worked for the corporate research laboratory at Exxon. The oil industry is inherently tied to soft matter, and I worked on various topics in polymers while being exposed to people doing soft matter of different kinds. After that I went to Cambridge, working at one of the best soft matter groups, which was established there by Sam Edwards, who did a lot of fundamental work of bringing ideas from particle physics to soft matter. After Exxon and Cambridge, I was indoctrinated into soft matter, and I like it because it’s very interdisciplinary. Soft matter scientists get to interact with engineers, mathematicians, chemists, and biologists, and there’s always something new.

You’ve been involved with the APS for a while, and formerly held the role of Secretary/Treasurer when soft matter was just a topic group and not a division in APS. How has the soft matter community evolved during your time with it and what has been the role of APS in that?

What becoming a group has done is enable subdivisions of soft matter that didn’t have a home to thrive. It has also strengthened links that were already there between soft matter and biological physics. The international soft matter community is quite large, and there’s a meeting that started in Europe called the International Soft Matter Conference. I was a little bit involved in the organization of the meeting when it started in 2007 and it was held every three years somewhere in Europe. But now, some aspects of the organization have broadened, and Mike Rubinstein, a Professor of Chemistry and Physics at Duke University, has spearheaded the effort to expand it beyond the borders of Europe. Now it rotates between Europe, Asia, and the Americas, and this year it will be in North Carolina for its first time in the States. Having soft matter be within the APS has helped because these international meetings get sponsorships from different societies, and if there isn’t a strong representation of that group in an obvious way, it can be difficult to get the national society to recognize it and bring large meetings to the US.

Soft matter has such a large scope, spreading across different fields of research. Why is it important that APS or other communities encourage its interdisciplinary nature? How do you feel that soft matter research is useful for other branches of physics or more global issues?

Interdisciplinary science and collaboration is super important, because when faced with a difficult problem, new ideas can come from working with somebody who isn’t in that field and has a different way of thinking. Interdisciplinary work is at the heart of soft matter, and one of the great aspects of soft matter is that you can bring ideas from different fields to understand it. And conversely, you can use some of the ideas developed in soft materials in other fields. For example, image processing is done in fields like astrophysics and engineering, and you can use it to understand how soft matter materials behave, using algorithms developed for astrophysics. And vice versa, as someone from soft matter can develop a method for microscopy which can be used for astrophysical applications. There are many examples where knowledge in one discipline feeds another.

In terms of broader applications, I work on polymers and polymers are plastic. While I’m not working on recycling directly, I’m trying to understand what happens when recycling goes wrong, and you can’t separate your plastics from each other. If you can understand the bad materials you make, maybe you can understand how to make them better. Or understand how to mitigate them so you don’t get to that stage in the first place.

You’ve held many titles and roles over the years, this being the most recent. Why do you feel that taking leadership or big picture roles is important? How are you hoping this position will affect your own current research?

I have seen a lot about how science and soft matter work in different places. I was in England for 20 years, Prof. Del Gado and I just came back from a sabbatical in France, and I visited labs in France and Germany and the Netherlands a lot when I was in England, so I understand a little bit about how soft matter is administrated in those countries. For example, in the Netherlands, it’s really between chemistry and physics, and a lot of it started in chemistry departments rather than physics. In the UK, it started in physics departments. It’s a very different structure in France because the national laboratory system is intimately linked up with the academic system. It’s not like here where you have separate laboratories like Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, and Sandia. There, national laboratory scientists are in every university. Because I have that broad view, I think I can help with the APS in bringing some of the best practices that I’ve seen, and some of the contacts I have internationally.

As far as how it can help my research, anything that brings me in contact with more scientists is useful. The nice thing about being a councilor is that in the meetings we have twice a year, you can get some time away from the meeting and ask what people are working on. Which goes back to the interdisciplinary question, as I could get an idea for something in soft matter based on talking to a colleague in another field.

What current questions or big topics in soft matter research are you hoping to gain insight on in coming years?

A big topic, which is not specific to soft matter but which all scientists are taking on, is how machine learning can be used and understood. You have these different ways of using machine learning but it’s really a lot of different black boxes, many of which we don’t understand. There are people in the soft matter community who are now turning their attention to try to look at what we can understand about the physics from what the machine learning results are telling us.

Another totally unrelated area which a lot of people are working on is real questions in biology. When I say real, I mean biological questions: how does evolution work, how did life begin here. And I think soft matter can help with those really big questions, and they’re fun questions to think about. Another thing people have been talking about for at least 50 years is cancer, and there are soft matter physics questions at the heart of understanding cancer, because cancer tissue has different mechanical properties.

Another goal is making smarter materials, materials that can adapt themselves such that you don’t need to repair anything, it fixes itself because of the way it’s been designed. Additive manufacturing and 3D printing are big engineering questions, but there’s also a lot of inherent science questions because 3D printing involves pushing the limits of materials.  You’re making a material where the bulk properties are determined by these interfaces between little filaments that you’ve laid down. There are a lot of really interesting scientific applications and societal benefits out of 3D printing and additive manufacturing.

I know you only recently took this position, but do you have any plans for your term? What does DSOFT leadership hope to focus on moving forward?

I haven’t gone to a meeting yet, and I haven’t had a meeting with DSOFT to see if they have particular views, but I’m going in with a soft matter hat but with my feet firmly in the other divisions I’m participating in: polymer physics, biological physics, and statistical physics. I will be working with these other divisions in ways which push our whole larger discipline forward as well; and also working with other areas of physics, because all fields of physics (and science) help each other.