NSF grant allows UTPA faculty to study building materials from the bottom up
Posted: 09/15/2011
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Plants, animals and all things in nature build themselves up from the tiniest particles into full-sized structures. Drs. Matthew Patitz and Robert Schweller, assistant professors of computer science at The University of Texas-Pan American, want to figure out how to replicate what nature does.

UTPA Assistant Professors of Computer Science Matthew Patitz, left, and Robert Schweller, right, received a three-year NSF grant totalling $399,981 to study self-assembly in natural systems and re-create that process artificially.

The faculty members received a three-year, $399,981 grant from the National Science Foundation to study self-assembly theory in natural systems and re-create that process artificially. The grant began July 1 and runs through June 30, 2014.

"Self assembly is one of the tools that nature uses to build the most interesting, most powerful machines on the planet," Schweller said. "A Boeing jet is nothing compared to a plant, its sophistication is nowhere near that. ... Nature is building these extremely powerful machines in a very different way, from the bottom up; they start with simple particles that self assemble to build the plant and have it execute whatever it does. So what we're interested in is harnessing that power. Nature does it, we know it works. How can we do that to build something cooler than a jet plane," Schweller said.

Patitz and Schweller will look at mathematical limitations of some of these systems and propose new models to fellow researchers. What they find may be used to develop new methods of manufacturing everything from biomedical devices to computer chips.

"In the past, manufacturing has always been done from a top-down (approach), you take a big chunk of matter, like, imagine a piece of wood and you carve off the stuff you don't want until you're left with what you do want," Patitz said. "Our idea is to do bottom-up manufacturing, which is designing molecules so that they will build themselves from the bottom up and they'll build the thing that you want. As computer scientists, we apply computational theory of mathematics to systems that people have either proposed or are building in laboratories to use artificial molecular components to build self-assembling systems."

The faculty members plan on hiring graduate and undergraduate students in the computer science program to assist in research.

"The absolute best way to educate someone, to give them a real computer science education, is to get them working on actual research problems," Schweller said. "You can only learn so much studying something that's already known. To really master computer science you need to be studying problems no one has solved yet."

Schweller and Patitz said they also hope students who participate in this research will be encouraged to continue their studies at the master's and doctoral levels.

Students interested in working on this project can contact the assistant professors via email at and