ISO Fellow Gary Wnek and Colleagues Land $5.5M NSF PIRE Grant

Caddisfly silk.

One-hundred and fourteen years after engineers were looking to birds for the first powered flight, principal investigators LaShanda Korley, Jonathan Pokorski, and ISO fellow Gary Wnek (all of Case Western Reserve University), and Stuart Rowan ( of University of Chicago) are looking to nature to develop silk-inspired nanocomposites from spider/caddisfly silk mimics; sea cucumber, squid beak and pine cone inspired adaptive structures; excitable polyelectrolyte fiber networks/gels, which could be used to engineer artificial neurons; dynamic and functional fibers inspired by the extracellular matrix; and soft robotics inspired by worm locomotion. As reported by the Plain Dealer, robots developed from these technologies could “burrow through the earth or

Squid beak.

building wreckage on search-and rescue-missions, crawl inside waterlines and oil and gas pipelines to inspect them and, if miniaturized, deliver a stent or remove plaque by crawling through a blood vessel.”


The complexity, and critical necessity, of this kind of endeavor was foreseen by the National Science Foundation, who recognized the need for the US to be interconnected with the global research community in order to meet the technical challenges of the future. This lead them to create the PIRE (Partnerships for International Research and Education) grant, which seeks to “support high quality projects in which advances in research and education could not occur without international collaboration and catalyze a higher level of international engagement in the U.S. science and engineering community.”

Gary Wnek, Professor of Macromolecular Science & Engineering, CWRU

As PIRE recipients, the international team now looks forward to “utilize inspiration from Nature to design new materials that can change toughness in response to their environment, are safer and more effective biological implants, will transmit nerve-like electrical signals, and can respond to the environment to initiate

LaShanda Korley, associate professor of Macromolecular Science and Engineering, CWRU

biological processes, all for use in soft robotic applications.”


The PIRE grant is unique: in addition to the scientific aims, this grant includes specific education and development goals. In particular, “Innovative educational and outreach activities will train US students in learning from Nature and in a bio-inspired philosophy,” the principal investigators’ winning abstract details,

Jonathan Pokorski, assistant professor of Macromolecular Science and Engineering, CWRU

“This training will happen in an international context with Swiss collaborators, world leaders in biomimetic concepts and research. Students will gain exposure to themes cutting across chemistry, polymers, physics, biology, and engineering in the development of multi-functional, active materials. Mentoring, diversity, cultural competency, globalization, and effective scientific communication are emphasized as critical elements of the PIRE.”