Michael Rubinstein: A Collaborative Approach to Soft-Matter Engineering and Science

New faculty member Michael Rubinstein creates polymeric models to bridge scientific disciplines and advance soft-matter research.

Michael Rubinstein will join the faculty of Duke University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science (MEMS) beginning January 1, 2018, with joint appointments in the Departments of Biomedical Engineering, Chemistry and Physics. An internationally recognized expert in the fields of polymer theory and computer simulations, Rubinstein will contribute to the growing interdisciplinary focus on collaborative polymer and soft-matter research across Duke.

Rubinstein, who moves to Duke from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studies various properties of polymeric systems—a type of soft matter composed of long chains of repeating units. Such polymers surround us in our day-to-day life, making up everything from DNA and proteins to plastics and rubber.

The types of repeating units that make up the polymers and the way these molecular chains coil up determine what properties the polymer will have, making a material strong like silk or bouncy like rubber. Rubinstein aims to understand and model these various properties so researchers can design new materials that exhibit more interesting and useful features based on what functions the material needs to perform.  

“In my new role here, my goal is to form a soft matter center that will connect Pratt, Trinity and the Duke University School of Medicine, and bring people with different backgrounds together to find solutions to complex problems."

To address these questions, Rubinstein divides his work into three parts: developing analytical models to describe soft matter and polymeric systems, performing computer simulations, and conducting experiments. “The most interesting part of my work involves discussing experiments and computer simulations with my collaborators and comparing their results with theoretical predictions, thus building bridges between analytical models, simulations, and experiments.” Rubinstein said.

Throughout his career, Rubinstein has used his experience with polymers and soft matter to begin new partnerships and advance unique collaborations, both with faculty at his own university and with research groups around the globe.

One such collaboration includes physicians at UNC-Chapel Hill who are studying cystic fibrosis. A physics graduate of Caltech and Harvard who worked in theoretical polymer research at AT&T Bell Labs and Kodak Research Laboratories before joining UNC’s Chemistry Department, Rubinstein had no previous experience in biology nor a background in medicine. But after discussing how he could use his knowledge to help the physicians solve their problem, Rubinstein created a biopolymer model to explain why the buildup of mucus caused by cystic fibrosis isn’t cleared from the lungs. He also built an experimental lab in the medical school to test the predictions of his model. Using this model, researchers gained a better understanding of how the disease progresses in patients.

“The field of polymers and soft matter is a very broad, but an interconnected field of science because you can take ideas from how tires are made or how a certain aspect of biology works and apply those principles to different areas,” said Rubinstein. “It has made my work extremely interesting.”

Now, as he begins a new chapter at Duke, Rubinstein––who has also been named a MEDx investigator in recognition of his work spanning engineering and medicine–– hopes to continue to use his research and multiple appointments to advance collaborative efforts with faculty throughout the university.

To continue to grow his collaborative efforts, Rubinstein is planning to begin a series of new projects at Duke, including several education initiatives to provide further education to students studying soft matter and polymeric systems. Rubinstein hopes to revise the main textbook used to teach polymer physics—which he wrote—to include other areas of soft matter. He also hopes to help recruit new faculty and invite speakers who are experts in soft matter, ensuring that students have ample opportunity to learn from the leaders in the field.

“One of the things I really like about Duke is that there is a very nice mix between the engineering school and the groups in the Trinity School of Arts and Sciences,” he said. “In my new role here, my goal is to form a soft matter center that will connect Pratt, Trinity and the Duke University School of Medicine, and bring people with different backgrounds together to find solutions to complex problems."