¡MIRA!: NAU establishes interdisciplinary, inclusive center as transformative model for high-impact materials research and workforce development

Jen Martinez, Gabriel Montano and Cindy Browder

June 20, 2019

One of the biggest and most complex challenges facing Arizona’s institutions of higher education is the need to produce a more interdisciplinary workforce for STEM fields that is inclusive and representative of the state’s diverse populations. A new multicultural research center at Northern Arizona University built on the field of materials science promises to help meet that challenge on both fronts.

The NAU Center for Materials Interfaces in Research and Applications (¡MIRA!) will develop advanced functional materials through the exploration of materials interfaces. Materials science is an interdisciplinary field involving the properties of matter and its applications to various areas of science and engineering, including applied physics and chemistry as well as chemical, mechanical, civil and electrical engineering and informatics.

The new center’s fundamental scientific goals are to understand multi-scale relationships, from the molecular to the macro scale, and to understand how to dictate material function through the tuning of material interfaces. Basic and applied science discoveries in materials interfaces can impact health, energy and the environment, and these new technological applications can improve lives and enhance economic potential. 

“The center will leverage existing research expertise at NAU in the physical, chemical and biological sciences while developing new strengths in the applied sciences, resulting in a transformative model for performing high-impact materials research that enables faculty researchers to compete on a global scale,” said ¡MIRA! director and professor Jen Martinez, an internationally recognized expert in biomaterials science.

Research success through diversity

In Spanish, the center’s acronym ¡MIRA! means “look!”—extending an invitation to look at the impact of materials interfaces, the impact of NAU and the impact to the state of Arizona. A recognition of the state’s multicultural demographic makeup, the name is a deliberately inclusive welcoming to the students of Arizona, including underrepresented minorities and underrepresented populations, to consider education and career paths in materials science and STEM disciplines in general.

As a group, 50 percent of ¡MIRA! leadership, core faculty and affiliated faculty are from underrepresented groups or are women, which sets a new precedent for inclusivity among materials research centers across the country.

“With ¡MIRA!, our approach is to build on our intrinsic diversity to propel inventiveness and success, while also attracting students and unique funding opportunities,” Martinez said. “¡MIRA! will serve as a model for research excellence through an inclusive, interdisciplinary workforce.”

“Our vision is to inspire new approaches to solving complex problems in materials research through an inclusive approach inspiring future generations of scientists and engineers,” said ¡MIRA! chief scientist and professor of applied physics and materials science Gabriel Montaño, who is of Chicano heritage and a nationally recognized leader in diversity in STEM. “Our mission is to create unique opportunities in high-impact research, education and workforce training grounded in the area of materials interfaces.”

The cutting-edge research conducted by ¡MIRA! will provide practical training opportunities for undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, preparing them for next-generation STEM jobs in Arizona and beyond.

“We are proud to launch this exciting new research center at NAU,” said NAU President Rita Cheng. “This is one more way NAU is demonstrating our commitment to remaining competitive and viable as higher education changes.”

¡MIRA! leadership, faculty drawn from several disciplines

The interdisciplinary ¡MIRA! team includes leadership and faculty from several disciplines across the university, including applied and theoretical condensed matter physicists, mechanical engineers, biochemists and organic, physical and analytical chemists and biologists. The center’s leadership team includes Martinez, co-director Cindy Browder, professor of organic chemistry, and Montaño, who welcome more interdisciplinary scientists to join the vibrant team and science found within ¡MIRA!.

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Kerry Bennett | Office of the Vice President for Research