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Snail Mucus and Spider Silk Entice Students to Pursue Pathsin Medicine and Engineering

March 5, 2004
UC Merced Professor Shares Passion of Nature's Own Engineering

MERCED, CA — Professor Christopher Viney tailors his stories to his audience. Some may hear about a life lived in Britain, South Africa, the United States, Scotland and now Merced. Others may learn about slugs, and how the remarkable properties of their slimy trails enable fellow slugs to determine when they inched by and which way they were headed.

And in scientific discussions with elementary school students, he speaks their language. Viney, a highly respected scholar, talks about snot.

The latter may get some laughs, but Viney's purpose is quite serious: Improving the world's standard of living depends upon increasing the number of college graduates in science and engineering fields, and reaching out to students to spark interest in these fields is one of his favorite pursuits. His tale of nasal secretions illustrates the importance of mucus using examples such as slugs that can slither over razors without injury, and giraffes that can safely eat spiky plants.

Viney, recently hired as professor of engineering at UC Merced, has focused his research on biomimetics, a term he disdains because “it sounds like you just copy nature without thinking very hard.” He prefers to describe his work as bio-inspired materials science, which he defines as “looking to nature (mostly plants and animals) to see how nature uses stuff to build things.”

In the case of the mucus, understanding and replicating its unique properties could have applications in medicine — after all, mucus plays an integral role in human digestion, respiration and reproduction.

Another natural material that Viney researches is spider silk. Its remarkable stiffness and strength have long attracted scientists wishing to replicate it for industrial uses. However, as Viney points out, “Nature is not using silk to hold up heavy loads for long periods of time.”

He is currently studying uses for silk that would only require it to work its magic once - such as using it to reinforce aircraft luggage holds for bomb proofing, or to passively reinforce high pressure areas such as boilers in steam plants or submarine engines. He is also looking at ways to modify silk to make it last longer.

“Nature will answer your questions if you ask the right questions,” Viney says.

Viney's interest in the sciences was awakened with the gift of a chemistry set from his parents. He used it to “stink up the house” before moving on to a physics set, “with some shocking results.” Undaunted, he visited a university laboratory at age 12 with a teacher's brother who was his mentor.

Instilling further curiosity about the natural world was his geographically diverse upbringing. “If you live in interesting places you see interesting plants, animals and land forms, and you cultivate questions,” he says.

At UC Merced, Viney is continuing his research on the functions and properties of mucus and applications for spider silk, and will teach interdisciplinary courses in engineering, science and the core curriculum.

“Materials sciences has become a cornerstone field within virtually every dimension of engineering investigation and innovation; this is particularly true for the exciting and rapidly growing area of bioengineering,” says UC Engineering Dean Jeff Wright. “We are fortunate to have attracted one of the world's great scholars of materials engineering here to Merced. Professor Viney's stature as a top researcher, his award-winning teaching prowess, his passion for exciting students about engineering professions, and above all his commitment to making UC Merced a world-class institution make him a perfect addition to our team.”

Viney is thrilled to return to the United States — his family has strong ties to the West Coast, and his wife hails from Seattle, Washington. In addition, “There is something about the way college education and science are done in the U.S. that is completely unbeatable. It is a privilege to work at a good university — to come to work and put into effect ideas I have and the ideas of my colleagues. Many jobs aren't like that.”

Before joining UC Merced's faculty, Viney was a professor of the chemistry of materials and head of chemistry at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. He has also taught at the University of Washington in Seattle and the University of Oxford in the UK. He holds a BA and a PhD in materials science from the University of Cambridge.