Northwestern University professor John Rogers will visit Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus on May 2 to deliver the latest lecture in the Hugh and Ethel Kelly distinguished speaker series.  

Rogers is the Louis Simpson and Kimberly Querrey Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Biomedical Engineering and Neurological Surgery at Northwestern University and the director of the Querrey Simpson Institute for Bioelectronics. For his pioneering research in bioelectronics and other devices at the frontier of materials science, Rogers has been named to the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine — one of fewer than 30 people to ever belong to all three esteemed advisory bodies. 

His talk at Virginia Tech will explore his group’s recent work, published in Nature, developing three-dimensional microfliers — tiny, electronics-packed winged structures that have the distinction of being the smallest flying devices ever manufactured. 

The lecture will take place at 4 p.m. in Colonial Hall in the Squires Student Center. Hosted by the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science in partnership with the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, the event is free and open to the campus community.

Rogers’ expansive research program touches materials science, biomedical engineering, medicine, electrical engineering, and other disciplines, weaving together techniques and insights from across the landscape of modern research to create new classes of soft materials with powerful capabilities. He has leveraged expertise in conformal electronics, nanophotonic structures, microfluidic devices, and microelectromechanical systems to create devices with profound implications for multiple fields of medicine, including wireless sensors for pediatric patients, microfluidic systems that track sweat rate in real time to monitor nutrition and screen for disease, fully implantable probes that interface with the central and peripheral nervous system, and bioresorbable devices that can function as temporary pacemakers.

An interest in bio-inspired and bio-integrated technologies led Rogers’ group to develop the microfliers featured in his talk, which use specific geometries to linger in the air — like a whirling maple seed pod whose curved blades catch the wind and allow it to be swept farther away from its parent tree. 

Even in relatively simple living systems, sophisticated three dimensional micro- and nanostructures serve crucial biological functions. Developing analogous structures that could play similar roles in manufactured devices, however, has been hampered by the inability of current manufacturing techniques to construct these intricate architectures. Rogers’ group has pioneered a method that uses a stretchy substrate to coax a two-dimensional precursor to fold precisely into a three-dimensional structure.

This structure stabilizes the devices’ flight and extends the time they can be suspended in the air. Outfitted with ultra-miniaturized sensors, power sources, and antennas, the microfliers can serve as a dispersed network of sensitive environmental sensors for monitoring contamination, study population movement, or track the spread of disease. Manufacturing them from benign, biodegradable materials would provide a way to collect detailed, high-resolution data using a platform that vanishes harmlessly into the environment. 

Rogers’ long list of prestigious awards testifies to the impact his work has had across multiple disciplines. These include the James Prize in Science and Technology Integration from the National Academy of Sciences, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Smithsonian Award for American Ingenuity in the Physical Sciences, the Lemelson-MIT Prize, and a MacArthur Fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. In addition to his membership in all three National Academies, Rogers is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Fellow of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the American Physical Society, the Materials Research Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Inventors, and a number of other professional organizations. 

Before joining the faculty at Northwestern, Rogers was the Swanlund Chair Professor and director of the Seitz Materials Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has previously held positions at Bell Laboratories and Harvard University. 

Rogers earned master’s degrees in physics and chemistry and a doctorate in physical chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and physics from the University of Texas, Austin. 

The Hugh and Ethel Kelly Lecture Series is made possible by a fund from the estate of Ethel Kelly, who generously supported Virginia Tech and the College of Engineering in honor of her husband Hugh. Hugh Kelly earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the university and went on to play key roles in multiple groundbreaking projects over a long career at Bell Laboratories.

To honor Kelly’s technical accomplishments and the couple’s support of Virginia Tech, the College of Engineering and the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science established the lecture series in 2013. The Kellys’ generosity has allowed the institute to host Nobel Prize winning scientists, Pulitzer Prize winning authors, and other visionary leaders and thinkers.

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