David Pine Joins the School of Engineering

David Pine has a deep appreciation for the history of the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering and the work that has been done in his field by its faculty. “Just look at Herman Mark, who established the Polymer Research Institute here in the 1940s,” he says. “Thanks to him, the School of Engineering had the first graduate program of its kind in America, and his Saturday morning symposia attracted some of the leading scientists in the world to Brooklyn.” Besides Mark, who is widely considered the father of polymer science, Pine cites a list of other School of Engineering luminaries, including Donald Othmer and Joseph J. Jacobs, and he adds, “Many graduates have also gone on to really noteworthy careers. One who springs immediately to mind is Junji Kido, from the class of 1989, who has done pioneering work with organic light-emitting diodes.”

While economic struggles may have dimmed the luster of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in the years since its heyday, Pine, the newly installed head, firmly believes that it could soon return to its former glory. “We have a strong advocate in Dean Katepalli Sreenivasan,” he says, “and a multitude of resources, including newly renovated labs, are becoming available to us.” He expects to attract an exceptionally high caliber of faculty members. “The chance to work at a school with such a rich history, especially one in an unbeatable location like Downtown Brooklyn, is going to be very appealing,” he asserts.

Pine, who earned a Ph.D. in physics from Cornell University in 1982, is undeterred at being charged with such a revitalization. Effecting significant change has been something of a trope throughout his career. In the early 1990s, when he worked at Exxon Research & Engineering, soft matter physics was an established field of study in Europe but had not yet gained widespread acceptance in the U.S. (Soft matter includes complex fluids such as biological and synthetic polymers, emulsions, liquid crystals, and colloids, as well as gels and granular materials.) “Exxon was at the forefront of research in that area, and it was gratifying to be a part of it,” he recalls. “I particularly like the interdisciplinary nature of the work and the chance to collaborate closely with chemists, biologists, and engineers.”

When Pine, a California native, decided to leave Exxon for academia in 1995, he accepted a post as a professor of materials science and chemical engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). “The school was on the rise, and I really enjoyed being part of that ascendence,” he recalls. “Also, my office directly overlooked the ocean.” The view did not, however, distract him from his teaching and research, and in 2001 he began chairing the Department of Chemical Engineering. By the time he left to come to NYU in 2005, his UCSB program had been named one of the top 10 in the country.

At NYU Pine became the founding director of the Center for Soft Matter Research, and under his leadership, it has become one of the foremost such facilities in the world. His own research is focused on colloids, and he is adept at explaining his work to laypeople. “Ink and milk are examples of colloids that people encounter every day,” he says, “and if you wear an opal, you’re wearing a dried colloid.” In the case of opals, spheres of silicon dioxide self-assemble into orderly stacks, which diffract light, resulting in the gemstone’s luminous colors. Pine and his colleagues aim to synthesize new colloids that self-assemble, in a similar way, into specific patterns, a diamond lattice, for example. These could do for light, he explains, what semiconductors do for electricity, performing switching and amplifying functions.

Pine’s work was featured on the cover of the respected journal Nature in November 2012, with an article that celebrated his lab’s discovery of a method for creating colloids with specific directional bonding—a finding that could lead to colloids with useful optical properties and possible applications in a variety of industries.

Despite his new duties as head of the department, he expects to continue devoting himself wholeheartedly to scientific enquiry. “I’m working in an exciting field at an exciting time,” he says. “And the School of Engineering is an exciting place to be.”