LRSM celebrates 50 years of multidisciplinary discovery



William Romanow at the Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter circa 1962.

On Friday May 4, a half-century of groundbreaking science and education will be honored at the Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter’s (LRSM) 50th Anniversary Symposium.

LRSM funding started in 1960. Development of the building began in 1962, and the lab was first occupied in 1963/64. The LRSM was an early forerunner to some of the principles that define Penn today: integrating knowledge across multiple disciplines.

By drawing faculty from the School of Arts & Sciences, the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS), and the School of Medicine, LRSM programs have tackled big material science problems from multiple angles, both in theory and through experiments.

The LRSM was founded to bring together researchers with different skills and perspectives to study fundamental aspects of a field that was shifting with the times.  

After World War II, the research needs of the nation began to change. Funding agencies that had been primarily concerned with military superiority became interested in maintaining a scientific and technological edge in the Cold War. In 1960, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, sent out a call for proposals, looking for research centers that would push materials science into new territory.

Professors Elias Burstein of the Department of Physics, Robert Hughes of the Department of Chemistry, and Robert Maddin and Norman Hixson of SEAS heeded that call. They knew that an interdisciplinary approach was the only way to get to the heart of these matters, a choice reflected in their selection of the lab’s name.

“We didn’t call it a ‘materials center’ because, at the time, materials meant actual, practical engineering materials, like steel and rubber,” says Burstein. “I proposed we name the center the ‘Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter’ to emphasize that the research would be fairly fundamental.”

Burstein, Hughes, and Maddin will speak about the birth of the LRSM at the symposium, followed by presentations from current and former members.


Candace diCarlo

LRSM Director Arjun Yodh

The lab’s 50 years of accomplishments have laid the foundations for much of today’s cutting-edge materials research. These achievements include work on conducting polymers, which won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2000, and the foundational theories for quasicrystals, which won the prize last year.

The LRSM also recently received a $21.7 million National Science Foundation grant as one of its top Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers, or MRSECs. Four new interdisciplinary groups were created as a result, showing that the lab's founding principles remain strong, 50 years later.    

“The founders recognized very early on that to really make progress in understanding materials, you need people working creatively who can bring different elements to the problem,” says LRSM Director Arjun Yodh. “The activity is intrinsically multidisciplinary. You can do a lot better if you’re working together to solve big problems.”

The celebratory symposium begins with registration at 8 a.m. at the LRSM, 3231 Walnut St. The event is open to the public. Preregistration is required.

For more information, visit the LRSM website.

Originally published on May 3, 2012