Soft Condensed Matter & Physics of Living Systems Seminar

Soft Condensed Matter & Physics of Living Systems Seminar

Polymer physics: From mucus hydrogel to soft functional materials


November 12, 2019 - 3:00pm to 4:00pm


Klaus Advanced Computing Building


1116 West



University of Virginia


Synthetic rubber and biological hydrogels are dramatically different, but their properties and functions are largely determined by the structure and architecture of their common components polymers. Such a deterministic correlation poses opportunities in the field of polymer physics. In this talk, I will discuss how concepts and knowledge in polymer physics help understand biological questions, which, in turn, inspires the design of new soft materials.

First, I will discuss the biophysical roles of mucus hydrogel in human lung defense. It will be discussed how pathologically relevant biophysical parameters of mucus help understand interactions among mucus, extracellular matrix, and epithelial cells – the three major components of lung defense. Second, inspired by the structure of constituent molecules of mucus, I will show the development of a soft, thermo-reversible, solvent-free rubber with stiffness on the order of 1 kPa. The temperature triggered solid-to-liquid transition enables the elastomers a new class of soft materials for direct-ink-write 3D printing. I will also discuss immediate applications and emerging challenges stimulated by these discoveries.


Liheng Cai is an Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia, where he currently holds joint appointments to the Department of Materials Science and the Department of Chemical Engineering, and a courtesy appointment to the Department of Biomedical Engineering. He received his Ph.D. in Materials Science from the University of North Carolina, where he researched with Prof. Michael Rubinstein on theoretical polymer physics and with Prof. Richard C. Boucher on experimental biophysics. During his postdoctoral training with Prof. David Weitz at Harvard, he switched to experiments. Since 2018, he has been leading Soft Biomatter Laboratory at UVa, where his group focuses on understanding and controlling the interactions between active soft materials and living systems with the mission to solve challenges in energy, health, and environmental science. He received North Carolina Impact Award, Harvard Postdoctoral Award for Professional Development, and NSF CAREER Award.