LaShanda Korley: Creating New Polymers, and Upcycling the Old Ones

LaShanda Korley: Creating New Polymers, and Upcycling the Old Ones

Slice of MIT, 11 January 2021

Most of us either shudder at spider webs or admire their intricacy. LaShanda (James) Korley PhD ’05, sees something else entirely: inspiration for new polymers. 

Now a professor of materials science and engineering as well as chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Delaware, Korley began her ongoing study of spider silk as a chemical engineering PhD student in MIT’s interdepartmental Program in Polymers and Soft Matter. “The foundation of my work is bioinspiration. We don’t necessarily try to mimic materials—we take inspiration from those materials and translate aspects of those systems into new material development,” Korley explains. For example, she is developing a material that changes shape in response to water—taking its cue from spider silk’s ability to “supercontract,” shrinking drastically and altering its mechanics, when it gets wet. A synthetic material with this property could be used in soft robotics or artificial muscle.

Korley’s research has progressed from simply designing nature-inspired polymers to creating those polymers more sustainably. One aspect of her work is building new polymers from renewable raw materials such as lignin in wood, and designing them to be reprocessed after serving their original purpose, further reducing their environmental impact.