With NSF CAREER win, Hutchens inspired by osmosis-driven motion of plants

Assistant Professor Shelby Hutchens has been awarded a CAREER grant for her proposal, “Measurement and analysis of osmosis-mediated, closed-cell poroelastic dynamics” from the National Science Foundation. 
The NSF Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) initiative selects the nation’s best young university faculty in a highly competitive annual program. Scholars like Hutchens are recognized for their extraordinary promise to integrate research and education in the nation’s universities and to make lifelong contributions to their disciplines.
Hutchens proposes to describe the physico-chemo-hydromechanical behavior of closed-cell fluid-solid composites under the regime of osmosis-driven motion. This work is inspired by the plant kingdom, which quietly and efficiently goes about its life without the aid of muscle tissue. Despite this limitation, plants can produce large and even rapid movements using water as the driving force—movements that enable energy harvesting and sexual reproduction for the plant. Hutchens and her team will construct and model composite materials that use this osmosis-driven motion as inspiration.
By leveraging plant architectures, the synthetic plant-tissue-analogs resulting from these efforts aim to provide a non-toxic, energy efficient, and tailored response. Simultaneously, such materials would require no connection to an external power support when used in water. The anticipated response of these hydraulic structures may be tuned to provide response variation as a function of both time and position—responses that are essential for many tissue therapies and which could benefit applications in healthcare and biomechanics. Hutchens said she also aims to enrich understanding of the hydraulic response of plants, a necessary component of detailed climate models.
Building on existing theories of poroelasticity for solids capable of finite deformation, her team will develop a constitutive model for this currently undescribed class of materials. Models will be informed by experiments on synthetic plant-tissue-analogs architected for a homogeneous deformation response when immersed in an aqueous environment. As validation of the final model, dynamically and/or inhomogeneously deforming, architected composites will be designed and fabricated with an aim toward metastable, hierarchical self-assembled structures. 
Hutchens said her work would fill an existing gap in the understanding of “water relations” in plant tissue. Specifically, by controlling material and surface properties via engineered water-solid composites, her findings could resolve an ongoing debate regarding inter- and intra-cellular water flow pathways and their dependence on the osmotic and hydrostatic pressure within the cells.
“I am honored to receive this award and looking forward to exploring the response of these plant tissue-analogs. I am hopeful this work will develop into a new class of active materials,” said Hutchens.
Her proposal also incorporates an element of outreach that includes organizing a sports-related mechanics of materials activity for girls’ sports camps.
“I’m excited to leverage my past experience as a Division I basketball player. I will be using an activity developed with [MechSE’s Education Coordinator] Joe Muskin for the GBAM camps, making shoe sole-like materials and testing them mechanically,” she said.
Hutchens joined MechSE in the fall of 2014, after a postdoctoral position at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She earned all of her degrees in chemical engineering: a BS from Oklahoma State University (2004), and MS (2006) and PhD (2011) from the California Institute of Technology.