YU Receives $1 Million Grant from Keck Foundation

Dr. Emil Prodan to Serve as Co-PI on Pioneering Biophysics Research

A joint Yeshiva University-New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) team recently received a $1 million, three-year science and engineering research grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation for work on “Topological Phonons”—vibrational energy that are confined to the surface or edge of a material. YU Professor of Physics Emil Prodan is a co-principal investigator on the grant, along with Dr. Camelia Prodan, associate professor of physics at NJIT.

Dr. Emil Prodan
Dr. Emil Prodan

The team’s research involves complex, cutting-edge ideas in theoretical physics, mathematics and biology. It seeks to break new ground in understanding the mechanics of how microtubules—responsible for the structure of all living cells—function. Possible applications of the research include sound and heat management.

Prodan explained some of the concepts behind this research: “Vibrations can be excited at various frequencies. When you pick up a system and you start to shake it, you see a mechanical wave propagating into the system.” For example, when you tap the surface of water, you see ripples. “It’s the same phenomenon when you tap any surface,” said Prodan. “You don’t see it with the naked eye, but through a microscope you’ll see the same ripples.”

According to Prodan, there are different types of vibrations. “Bulk vibrations” pass through the entirety of the system. But, as a breakthrough 2009 research paper by Prodan’s team demonstrated, there can also exist “topological vibrations.” These vibrations propagate along the surface of the material and almost not at all throughout its bulk (previously, the concept had been known to apply to electronic systems, but not mechanical ones).  Prodan explained that there are a multitude of potential practical applications for materials with topological properties. For example: bulletproof shielding (the shock would spread through the material’s surface, but not its bulk).

Utilizing the “bulk-boundary principle” in quantum mechanics, there is a mathematical way to detect whether a material has this topological property. Furthermore, some two-dimensional materials propagate waves only at their edges. “What is interesting is that this [model of the two-dimensional] material was inspired by a self-assembled protein structure that exists in living cells,” said Prodan. “We knew from the beginning that microtubules—which are responsible for the structure of cells and vital to their function—have interesting mechanics. When we built the model, we were quite amazed to see a topological edge mode.” Prodan suggested that a better understanding of microtubule function could further illuminate how drugs used in chemotherapy, which targets the structure of cancer cells, operate.

“For me what’s really amazing is how we really use mathematics to do all these things,” said Prodan. “I am part of an enthusiastic group of people who believe we can change the world with mathematics. In theoretical physics and mathematics, one person can make a difference. You don’t need a hospital, or a medical school, or a big lab; you just need an idea and prove it on a piece of paper, and suddenly you can show the world something they have never seen.”

Prodan intends to recruit students to help with the research project. At YU, he runs a theory and computational lab, which uses mathematics to predict interesting, complex structures that are hoped to find immediate application.

“Writing mathematical codes and producing illustrations in Dr. Prodan’s computational lab was a really good experience to get me started on my engineering path,” said Carolyn Fine ’14S, who worked in the lab during Spring 2014 and graduated last May with a degree from YU’s joint program in engineering with Columbia University. “Dr. Prodan was very approachable and patient when I had questions. One of the advantages of Stern College is that the small setting allows professors to be more accessible to the students; YU made it incredibly easy to build such a relationship.”

“Dr. Prodan’s most recent grant and collaboration is testament to the high regard the scientific community has for his work,” said Dr. Karen Bacon, the Mordecai D. Katz and Dr. Monique C. Katz Dean of the Undergraduate Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Yeshiva University. “Our undergraduates are truly fortunate to study with and be mentored by this exceptional researcher who is at the cutting edge of scientific discovery.”

This project will be the first major collaboration between Yeshiva University and NJIT.

# # #

Based in Los Angeles, the W. M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 by the late W. M. Keck, founder of the Superior Oil Company. The Foundation’s grant making is focused primarily on pioneering efforts in the areas of medical, science and engineering research. The Foundation also maintains an undergraduate education program that promotes distinctive learning and research experiences for students in the sciences and in the liberal arts, and a Southern California Grant Program that provides support for the Los Angeles community, with a special emphasis on children and youth from low-income families, special needs populations and safety-net services. For more information, please visit www.wmkeck.org.