McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine affiliated faculty member Anna Balazs, PhD, has been at the Swanson School of Engineering since 1987 and is now a Distinguished Professor in chemical and petroleum engineering.  As reported by Amerigo Allegretto for Pittwire, Dr. Balazs is working to transform the future through her research of soft robotics, which could have revolutionary applications across a variety of fields — from surgery in hospitals to rehabilitating patients to providing safer industrial manufacturing conditions.

Soft robotics is a subfield where robots are made of materials similar to those found in living organisms. Dr. Balazs’ goal is to create materials that can make “soft” robots autonomous and adapt to different environmental conditions.

“It’s like, what if the Roomba could just clean by itself without any outside instructions?” Dr. Balazs said.

When she was young, she took an interest in mathematics and physics, the latter of which she primarily studied at Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for her bachelor’s degree. Afterward, she attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studying material sciences, and then did post-doctoral work in chemistry at Brandeis University and later, polymer science at the University of Massachusetts.

“I wanted to be able to design something that had a function,” Dr. Balazs said. “That’s where the transition between physics and engineering happened, at the end of college.”

Representing Pitt, Dr. Balazs has given presentations and lectures around the world, including Australia, the Netherlands, Germany and the United Kingdom. In May, she will attend a conference in Beijing, China, and in July, will travel to Chile to talk about how external stimuli such as light, heat or local chemical variations could drive soft materials like gels to mimic behavior seen in biology.

Overall, though, Dr. Balazs considers the students and researchers she has mentored who have gone on to meet their career goals to be her greatest accomplishment.

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