What do nanotubes and transoceanic cable have in common? They are slender structures, and they coil – and collaborators at MIT and Université Paris 6 are working to identify and better understand their underlying mechanics.

"This funding jumpstarted a very significant and coherent set of activities on a class of problems of mutual interest."

As a PhD student, Pedro Reis – now an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Civil & Environmental Engineering at MIT – connected with Basile Audoly, at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and Université Paris 6. The two scientists collaborated occasionally over the years, but it was a MISTI seed fund grant that sparked their most productive joint project to date.

“When Basile published his book Elasticity and Geometry,” says Reis, “it inspired me to brainstorm a new collaboration with him. As scientists, we are highly complementary. He is a theoretical physicist, whereas I focus on the experimental mechanics of slender structures such as filaments and human hair.”

The MISTI funding enabled Reis and Audoly to move forward with a project titled “Coiling Spaghetti: Periodic Patterns in the Deposition of a Thin Filament onto a Moving Substrate,” focused on a new class of coiling patterns that results when an elastic filament impacts onto a moving solid boundary. Their goal was to identify and explain the range of coiling patterns by contrasting experiments performed at MIT with the analytical and computational work being developed at CNRS/Université Paris 6.

“This one small grant has really opened doors,” Reis notes. “we have been awarded a significant NSF grant for further research, have integrated other colleagues into our collaboration and we are publishing papers on the mechanics of rods and curly hair. Students from MIT and from France have worked on the project, and now one of Basile’s former Ph.D. students will be joining MIT as an applied math Instructor, and one of my former post-docs has joined the faculty in Basile’s institute. So we’ve seen this grant lead to a variety of positive outcomes: grants, papers, and human capital.”

“Some may think it’s not worth their time to write a grant for such a small amount of seed funding, but the MISTI grants work exactly as they should. They get the engines going – and in our case, the funding jumpstarted a very significant and coherent set of activities based on this class of problems of common interest.”

In Reis’ opinion, perhaps the most valuable aspect of the MISTI grant is that it fosters the relationships that will support a longer-term collaborative research effort. “It’s a completely different way of looking at a grant,” he says. “Yes, it gives you a basis for getting started, but the biggest piece of the story is that connections get made and new unexpected innovations spring forth as a result.”

  • France
  • Seed Fund
  • MechE