Lihua Jin, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, has received a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER award, the agency’s highest honor for faculty members in the early stages of their teaching and research careers.

The award includes a five-year, $625,000 grant to support her research in stimuli-responsive soft materials. These materials can change their shapes, structures or functions in response to changes in temperature, light, chemicals, or an electric or magnetic field.

When preprogrammed to change from one state to another and back, the materials could be used in soft robotics, biomedical devices, energy harvesting and reconfigurable structures. Jin will lead research that looks at the underlying kinetics — the chemical and physical mechanisms that affect a material’s state change.

Kinetic processes determine how fast a material can change its state and change back as well as how it evolves its shapes, structures and functions. The research will include modeling and experiments based on three types of stimuli-responsive soft materials — polymers that respond to heat, polymers that respond to humidity and hydrogels that respond to light. Jin will look at controlling how the materials reconfigure their shapes, oscillate and move themselves.

Jin leads the Mechanics of Soft Materials Lab at UCLA. Her honors include the Extreme Mechanics Letters Young Investigator Award, the Haythornthwaite Young Investigator Award and a UCLA Hellman Fellowship. The CAREER Award is Jin’s second NSF grant as principal investigator.

Jin teaches undergraduate courses on strengths of materials and a graduate course on finite element analysis for solids and structures. She was one of five UCLA Samueli faculty members that were highlighted in a UCLA Magazine June 2021 feature on soft robots.

Since 2016, more than 25 faculty members affiliated with UCLA Samueli have received an NSF CAREER Award.