Matlack uses acoustics to design better materials

New MechSE assistant professor Kathryn Matlack is expanding her fascination with acoustics and sound waves to further research and understand how waves propagate through various materials. 
Matlack arrived at Illinois after completing a postdoc at ETH in Zurich, Switzerland. She earned all her degrees in mechanical engineering—MS and PhD degrees from Georgia Tech, and a bachelor’s degree at MIT. 
She pursued acoustics during her undergraduate career, where she majored in mechanical engineering and minored in music. She grew up singing and playing the piano and the violin, so acoustics and sound waves were always a large part of her life. 
“Back in high school I was a musician and I was also really interested in math, science and engineering, so acoustics was the perfect collaboration of those interests,” Matlack said.
Although she did not end up pursuing music after undergrad, Matlack said acoustics has always fascinated her. This intrigue led her to study wave propagation. Her research explores how waves propagate, or spread, through materials. A better understanding of this can allow researchers to more easily use wave propagation data to image defects in materials, and to design materials that will be able to control propagation. For example, she explained that by designing the structure of a material to be periodic, certain frequencies cannot travel through the material, making it immune to vibrations. 
Matlack’s research shares many ideas from the civil engineering field, and her interests also apply in areas of turbines and aircrafts, as well as in seismic wave propagation. 
“One project we are working on is with seismic metamaterials that could potentially be buried in the ground to mitigate seismic wave propagation from fracking-induced seismic waves,” she said. 
Currently, engineers identify materials for the design of structures, but there is not much flexibility to simultaneously designate tailored requirements for these materials, such as stiffness, strength, vibration absorption, and damage-tolerance properties. Matlack said her research, combined with 3D printing prototypes, can yield more flexibility for designing a range of multifunctional materials. 
Additionally, Matlack has been working on the idea of designing new materials that can change properties according to their environments. As an example, there could be a spacecraft covered with material that could change its characteristics – such as structural properties and vibrational response – to adjust to the various layers of atmosphere it passes through. Matlack said this is the sort of research she hopes to do here at MechSE. 
“I am really interested in wave propagation and how we can use these concepts to design new materials and devices. I think I can really push these ideas forward in collaboration with the range of research activities going on in MechSE, and the university as a whole,” she said. 
On the teaching side, Matlack has joined the Collins Scholars program, one in which new professors learn innovative teaching strategies. She said it has already proven to be beneficial, and she hopes it will be a rewarding program. 
“The program helps create a supportive environment and community for new professors. It’s great that the department and the college both strongly support it.”