Friday, February 10, 2017

Meet Marcelo Dias, Our Newest Faculty Addition

Some of you may have noticed a new faculty member walking the corridors of the Department of Physics and Astronomy this year. Marcelo Dias is starting his second semester at JMU as an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Though he now finds himself at JMU, Prof. Dias had an interesting journey to get here.

During my interview with him, Marcelo Dias said he "became a geek" in high school, reading popular science-fiction books, such as though written by Carl Sagan. Prof. Dias chose to do theoretical physics, and studied at the São Paulo State University in Rio Claro. He went on to earn his Master's Degree at the Institute for Theoretical Physics at São Paulo State University. Prof. Dias studied mathematical physics, focusing primarily on geometric theories. While working on his Master's, Dias went to a conference where he met a mathematician from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The mathematician invited him to UMass Amherst, and Marcelo Dias did his PhD work there as a result.

Prof. Dias explained that, at this time, he began trying to apply geometric concepts to real life problems. He did his PhD on soft-condensed matter, and afterword went to work in the School of Engineering at Brown University. Dias wanted to experience a new country, though, so he moved to Finland and worked as a Research Fellow at Aalto Science Institute, Aalto University.

 Although he enjoyed the cold weather of Finland, Marcelo Dias wanted to work as a teacher as well as a researcher, having experience as a TA while working on his PhD and teaching a course as a post-doc while at Brown University. So in late 2015, he decided to apply to JMU in order to do research and teach. Prof. Dias was interviewed in early 2016, and joined the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the fall of 2016. He is trying to balance teaching with research, and joked that having lab space is also new to him as a theoretical physicist.

As for his research, Prof. Dias has been working on how geometry and the mechanics of structures affect the technological application of materials, such as how NASA developed a foldable sunshield for their John Webb Telescope. Another example of the technological applications include making materials more aerodynamic; Dias displayed a tube of foil which compressed to make a regular pattern that would lower air resistance (and an origami tube with a pattern with the same effect).

Prof. Dias explained that he researches, "new mechanical properties that an elastic body can acquire from careful design of its internal geometry in addition to its actual components". He used origami as an example; depending on how the paper is folded, its mechanical properties change. This is clearly visible by folding paper in a sandwich structure makes it strong enough to support the weight of a car.

From here.

Prof. Marcelo Dias wants to understand how these property changes scale. He works with tabletop models, and tries to predict universal behavior. Prof. Dias notes that there are many applications to this research. An example he gave was a heart stent, which could be deployed to expand at a specific place in a person's artery to help keep it open.

When asked about his recent interests, though, Prof. Dias added bio-mechanics to the mix. He has developed an interest in why certain parts of the human body have the shape they do, in how these parts evolved. Dias said he is interested in the evolution paradigm: "What sets humanity apart? Why are we so advanced?" While many people thought our big brains set us apart, Dias explained, our brain size evolved AFTER our current body structure had evolved. Prof. Dias said that the modern structures in the body allowed for the brain size jump. He is especially interested in the structure of the human foot; the arched structure provides a lot of functionality, and is good for long-distance running. Dias mentioned that the design works like a spring, provides stability on uneven terrain, and saves energy, and he is very curious how the geometry and mechanics of the foot has evolved to provide the locomotive functionality for humans we have today.

Although Prof. Dias has not been here long, he has made himself at home at JMU. He likes the atmosphere, and the close relationships between the faculty and staff of our department. Prof. Dias even has students interested in helping with his research already! Hopefully, Marcello Dias's time with the JMU Department of Physics and Astronomy will be a long, enjoyable chapter in his journey as a physicist.