Krystyn J. Van Vliet

KJ Van VlietBiography: Van Vliet earned her Sc.B. in Materials Science & Engineering from Brown University (1998) and her Ph.D. in Materials Science & Engineering from MIT (2002). At MIT, Van Vliet was a National Defense Science & Engineering Graduate Fellow, was President of the Graduate Materials Council, and won the MRS Gold Medal for her thesis research. Her MIT thesis work with Prof. Subra Suresh established the experimental and computational basis for predicting homogeneous nucleation of dislocations (plasticity carrying defects) in crystalline metals. She then conducted postdoctoral research with Dr. Marsha Moses at Boston Children’s Hospital, where she developed new experimental approaches to measure the effects of mechanical strain on cells that comprise blood vessels.

Van Vliet joined the faculty of the MIT Department of Materials Science & Engineering in 2004, and leads the Laboratory for Material Chemomechanics. She also joined the MIT Department of Biological Engineering in 2011. She directed the DMSE Nanomechanical Technology Laboratory (2004-2012), a multiuser research facility that includes training of student and staff researchers with approximately 60 new users each year, and co-directs the MIT Biomedical Engineering Minor Program (2008-present). Van Vliet currently leads the Singapore-MIT Alliance in Research & Technology (SMART) BioSystems & Micromechanics IRG, which includes approximately 175 researchers in Singapore and MIT, including 8 other MIT faculty from several engineering departments and 25 Singapore-based faculty collaborators. This team invents and develops new technology platforms for diagnostics and treatment of cell & tissue disease. Within five years, this team of engineers, biologists, and clinicians has contributed several key breakthroughs and inventions to cell imaging, drug screening, and optical imaging; this includes one start-up company and several devices now involved in international clinical trials.

Research Summary: Van Vliet’s laboratory studies material chemomechanics: the dynamic coupling between mechanical & chemical states at material interfaces. To identify the fundamental mechanisms of such interactions at the molecular scale, her group develops experiments and computational simulations that span material mechanics, chemistry, physics, and biology. Van Vliet seeks to predict how mechanical stiffness and force can alter molecular interactions, and vice versa. The motivating example of this research is the interface between biological cells and their microenvironments. Van Vliet has thus developed both experiments and computations to quantify how molecular and cellular kinetics depend on mechanical or biochemical changes at cell-material interfaces. These studies have shown, for example, why pH in wound or tumor environments alters molecular binding kinetics and cell migration toward the acidic site; and how rare stem cells can be sorted from other cells based solely on biophysical and mechanical properties. This mechanistic approach requires new tools and models validated in nonbiological material interfaces and extreme environments, achieved via her group’s parallel analysis of engineered gels, nanostructures, and nanocomposites with diverse functional applications. This feedback between biological and nonbiological materials enabled her group to develop the first synthetic material systems that are mechanotransuctive: gel nanocomposites that elicit a chemical signal in response to pressure. Van Vliet leads the SMART BioSystems & Micromechanics team of ~160 researchers at MIT and in Singapore, has co-developed new undergraduate and graduate laboratory classes, and has implemented new programs to retain underrepresented minority students.  Van Vliet has >100 papers in refereed journals. Her research and teaching efforts have been recognized most recently by the Singapore Research Chair (2012), Defense Science Study Group (2012), MIT Edgerton Faculty (2009) and Junior Bose Teaching (2009) Awards; and Human Frontiers Science Program (2009).

Technical Contributions: Van Vliet’s research group at MIT and SMART has focused on coupling between chemistry and mechanics at material interfaces. She is motivated by the cell-material interface, which is a dynamic and hydrated nonequilibrium interfaces, and has contributed several new experiments and observations of this interface. To develop those experimental and computational tools, she has also studied nonbiological interfaces of engineered materials with similar complexity. Van Vliet’s unique perspective on a now-recognized phenomenon that her group has helped articulate – chemomechanics –has provided a breadth of her interdisciplinary work that enables her to create new communities and to contribute to several disparate material classes and fields. This has led to her selection for awards and panel memberships including the US Defense Science Study Group. Her team’s key technical contributions over the past several years include:

  • Discovered and demonstrated computationally/experimentally that acidic pH of tumor and wound environments can cause cells to migrate toward acidic regions. First to test or show this, and to demonstrate response of cells to pH gradients via novel microfluidic devices (2010-2013). Although this discovery of acidic pH effects on cell behavior was pioneered by us for implications in cancer and wounds, this led to our discovery of this same pH response in cells of the central nervous system. This discovery has hit several scientific blogs, and generated new research and interest from drug companies for treatment of multiple sclerosis and of autism (2011-2013)
  • Co-invented a new device and approach to separate stem cell types on the basis of biophysical properties (such as size and stiffness), even though these cells are indistinguishable via current biomolecular markers (2010-present). Then showed that these cells transition from a single cell type to multiple distinct cell types during extended culture in vitro; and that these cells increase in stiffness during extended culture in vitro (2010-present). Together, this has led to formation of a company based on the underlying stem cell biophysical separation technologies, and clinical trials for use of these cells in bone tissue regeneration.
  • Showed that pericytes, a cell type that surrounds blood vessels, exert mechanical strain; developed a new device to measure and then apply that strain magnitude to blood vessel cells; and discovered that this can induce new blood vessel sprouting (2010-2013).
  • Demonstrated the first fully synthetic polymer gel that responds to mechanical deformation via generating a chemical signal – a key characteristic of biological cells (2010-2013). Under a critical mechanical compression, this gel will start oscillating in color and can transmit that signal via chemical diffusion to adjacent gels. This is the first synthetic chemomechanical transducer.
  • Designed and demonstrated the first polymer gels that mechanically mimic the response of heart tissue under ballistic impact loading, in collaboration with the US Army (2009-2013).
  • Co-developed the first atomistic structure of calcium-silicate-hydrates (2009-2013), the nanoscale building block of the adhesive phase of cement. This provides an important discovery tool to change the composition and processing of this material to reduce the associated CO2 burden, and was highlighted in Nature (2013) and Nature Materials (2013), as well as several team technology awards (2012).
  • Discovered and demonstrated experimentally/computationally how the stiffness of extracellular materials can directly augment kinetics of molecular binding. Led to design of new drug-delivery polymers and materials for cell adhesion (2008-2010).

Leadership Contributions: Van Vliet has had the opportunity to lead several dynamic efforts and teams, including:

  • Lead PI, SMART BioSystems & Micromechanics (2011-present). Lead team of ~175 researchers (faculty from 3 universities and 4 hospitals, staff, postdocs, graduate students) at MIT and Singapore, including a $50M budget over 5 years. In 2011-2012, led successful renewal of this team, funded by the Singapore National Research Foundation, for 2014-2018.
  • Co-Founder, MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub. With several MIT faculty from SoE, founded this industry-sponsored center at $5M/year effort and including ~20 researchers focused on computational prediction and experimental validation of new compositions and processing of cement and concrete to increase environmental sustainability of this ubiquitous infrastructure material.
  • Director, Nanomechanical Technology Laboratory (2004-2012). Led staff and directed budget of multiuser facility, including approval of all training and usage applications and development of new graduate-level class to train students from five engineering departments on cutting-edge approaches to quantify mechanical properties of polymers, gels, and biological materials.
  • Co-Director, Center for Scientific Investigation of Materials in Extreme Environments (CeSIMEE). Co-created this virtual center led by DMSE and Nuclear Science & Engineering, focused on shared interactions, shared instrumentation, and grant opportunities for MIT faculty conducting research at high temperatures, high mechanical loading rates, and high concentrations or fluxes of chemical species.
  • Co-Director, MIT Biomedical Engineering Minor Program. MIT-wide undergraduate minor, requiring annual review of curriculum and advising of students admitted at rate of ~20 new students/year in this multidisciplinary educational program.
  • Chair, DMSE Recruiting, Admissions, & Placement Committee. Lead department admissions of PhD and MS students, as well as all administrative details of admission policies and processes; recruiting efforts; and placement of all matriculated students into research groups within the first year of graduate studies.

Teaching Contributions: Van Vliet has developed several new undergraduate and graduate classes in Materials Science & Engineering (MIT’s Course 3) and Biological Engineering (MIT’s Course 20). These classes typically include both hands-on demonstrations or laboratories, and computational predictions and analysis. Van Vliet enjoys the dynamic classroom interaction that a blackboard-style lecture and multimedia demonstrations afford, and the reward of developing laboratory modules that encourage the student to learn-by-doing and learn-by-teaching. Most recently, she has incorporated student-developed YouTube lecture summaries as part of the curriculum, as well as student-developed song playlists that reinforce the connection between engineering concepts and everyday language and experiences. Living on the edge (dislocation), anyone?

Recent classes and links to MIT’s Stellar course sites are listed below, along with archived class websites (OCW) if available. Please feel free to contact for any specific course material, or to request fuller access to those sites.

  • 3.032: Mechanical Behavior of Materials (2004-2011 and OpenCourseWare 2007) [U, with labs]
  • 3.034: Organic & Biomaterials Chemistry (2004-2006, 2013, and OpenCourseWare 2005) [U, with labs]
  • 3.094: Materials in the Human Experience (2013) [U]
  • 3.40J: Modern Physical Metallurgy (20042007) [G]
  • 3.22: Mechanical Behavior of Materials (2008) [G]
  • 3.901: Experimental Mechanics of Soft Condensed Matter (20092011) [G, with labs]
  • 20.310J/3.053J: Molecular, Cell & Tissue Biomechanics (20122013) [U]
  • 20.410J/3.971J: Molecular, Cell & Tissue Biomechanics (2010, 2012) [G]