With the help of Prof. Christopher Alabi, chemical and biomolecular engineering, our cracked cell phone screens may one day heal themselves.
Alabi’s research focuses on polymers, molecules formed from smaller subunits that can be found in many aspects of our daily lives — ranging from almost any kind of plastic to the proteins in our bodies.
“In the future we could have a cell phone with a cracked screen and all you would have to do is just heat it slightly and it would heal itself back to its own form,” Alabi said, who oversees a group within his lab that develops ways to construct more environmentally sustainable polymers. “There are these new versions of plastics called vitrimers that can heal themselves when we heat them, and they can do that because their bonds can reform and reshape themselves.”
Beyond curing the dreaded broken screen, vitrimer chemistry can be especially useful in the context of the 8 million metric tons of plastic that end up in the ocean each year — polymers that help make up our water bottles, wrappers, and toothbrushes.
Because such polymers are permanently crosslinked, they cannot be easily reshaped and recycled, ending up in the trash can. But Alabi’s work focuses on designing synthetic polymers that don’t have those permanent bonds, and, as result, can reshape themselves after being exposed to some sort of stimulus, such as light or heat.
Another portion of Alabi’s lab focuses on the biological applications of man-made polymers. For instance, since drugs, like antibiotics, are made purely from biological components that are subject to breakdown by enzymes, synthetic polymers can be used to prevent this degradation, Alabi explained.
“When you make [polymers] synthetically you get around that degradation problem, and you can tune them to act specifically on pathogenic bacteria,” Alabi said.
Translating his research to the classroom, Alabi currently teaches CHEME 6400: Polymeric Materials, an upper-level course that he enjoys instructing because it requires students to synthesize their knowledge from multiple introductory, chemical engineering courses.
“It’s a joy to see that [understanding] crystallize in their heads,” Alabi said. “It’s one of those courses that you can see immediately how they appreciate what they’ve been put through in the past two to three years.”
In finding academic success, Alabi stressed the importance of asking questions, and staying curious about what they’re learning.
“One of the misconceptions that students have is that faculty know everything, but that’s so untrue,” Alabi said. “It’s that we have the courage to ask a ton of questions, and the only reason I know what I know is because I’ve asked a lot of questions and people have told me the answers, not because I have some fantastic intuition.”
According to Alabi, another key to academic success is building reliable, supportive friendships. As an undergraduate at New York University, he attributed much of his academic success to his camaraderie with his friend group.
“We did everything together. We would always go to office hours together, we would bounce ideas off of each other together, and there’s no way I could have done that stuff by myself.”
Aside from teaching and research, Alabi’s most meaningful Cornell moments have been seeing his graduate students’ intellectual growth during their time at Cornell. It becomes evident that a timid first-year has evolved to an experienced scientist when Alabi can “talk to them like colleagues and exchange ideas,” and their knowledge builds to the point that they begin to question their twenty year-old textbooks.
To those students questioning their intellectual limits, Professor Alabi spoke for many professors in professing that asking questions will always lead students to push the boundaries of their knowledge and deepen their capacity to learn.