Brad Olsen

The Macromolecule Melder

Materials maverick is powering up polymers by joining them with proteins

Materials science maven Paula T. Hammond had an inkling that there was something different about Bradley D. Olsen when he was a sophomore at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was sharp and curious to the point of distinction.

She and her colleagues knew they should keep an eye on Olsen after he left Cambridge, Mass., in 2003. He made that task a lot easier by joining MIT’s faculty in 2009.

Olsen’s team is now bridging the fields of biochemistry and polymer design by incorporating proteins into self-assembling block copolymers. Beyond boasting novel material characteristics, the resulting polymers can have unique bioactive properties.

The team’s hybrid materials could have applications in detoxifying chemical spills, stemming blood loss from wounds, and even repairing amniotic sacs to help extend pregnancies at risk of ending early. “His materials take on everything, from our core chemical sensibilities to helping human health,” Hammond reflects.

Olsen is already drawing comparisons to the likes of iconic interdisciplinary researchers George M. Whitesides and Samuel I. Stupp for his ability to ask powerful questions and his fearlessness when it comes to answering them. DuPont recently named him to its 2015 class of young professors.

Olsen is quick to attribute his dauntless approach to science to all those who have helped him, including his research group. “There’s a predisposition to intellectual curiosity, sure,” he tells C&EN. “But it comes from working with great mentors.” -Matt Davenport

Vital Stats

Current Affiliation: MIT

Age: 34

Ph.D. alma mater: University of California, Berkeley

Talent: Creating polymers with unique blends of bioactivity and material properties.

Scientific role model: Polymer pioneers Paul Flory and Pierre-Gilles de Gennes and materials scientist Edward Kramer. “All of these people have had an influence on my approach to scientific research.”

Three Most Important Papers By Olsen:

“Anomalous Self-Diffusion and Sticky Rouse Dynamics in Associative Protein Hydrogels” (J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2015, DOI: 10.1021/jacs.5b00722)

“Artificially Engineered Protein Hydrogels Adapted from the Nucleoporin Nsp1 for Selective Biomolecular Transport” (Adv. Mater. 2015, DOI:
10.1002/adma.201500752)

“Solid-State Nanostructured Materials from Self-Assembly of a Globular Protein-Polymer Diblock Copolymer” (ACS Nano 2011, DOI: 10.1021/nn2013673)

Research At A Glance

By incorporating proteins (red) into synthetic polymers (blue), Olsen’s group at MIT is creating a class of biomaterials with potential in many applications, including injectable implants.
By incorporating proteins (red) into synthetic polymers (blue), Olsen’s group at MIT is creating a class of biomaterials with potential in many applications, including injectable implants.

Credit: ACS Nano/Biomacromolecules

Hosea Nelson
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