2022 NSF CAREER Award: Matthew Rau


UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Matthew Rau, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Penn State, earned a five year, $567,307 NSF CAREER Award for a project titled “The impact of extracellular polymeric substances on particle transport in aquatic environments.”

What do you want to understand or solve through this project?

We want to understand how biology is influencing particle dynamics in the environment. Specifically, we are trying to understand how biopolymers, which are sticky gels secreted by many organisms like algae and bacteria, are governing the physical properties of particle aggregates. We know that they can promote aggregation of small particles into these aggregate clusters, but we don’t yet know if biopolymers strengthen these clusters, what the resulting physical properties of the clusters are, how we can quantify these properties or how we should incorporate these properties into models to predict particle transport. We hope to address these issues through this funded research. 

How will advances in this area impact society?

In natural aquatic environments, almost all particles are influenced by these biopolymers to some degree. This includes everything from sediment to algae to even microplastic pollutant particles, all of which readily interact with biological substances and become biofouled in the environment. Our advancements will increase our ability to predict how particles cluster and break apart based on their makeup and biological content. Ultimately, this knowledge will improve our ability to design wastewater treatment systems, monitor the movement of sediments, quantify the scope of microplastic and other particulate pollution and understand the effects of the ocean carbon cycle on climate change. 

Will undergraduate or graduate students contribute to this research? How?

Both undergraduate and graduate students will be instrumental to this research project. One or more graduate students will take charge of the extensive laboratory measurements that are needed for this research, which include both building and validating new experiments and performing materials analysis. These graduate students will work closely with undergraduate researchers as mentors, helping them learn what it is like to perform basic research. Students interested in participating should email me at matthew.rau@psu.edu for more information.

The NSF CAREER Award not only funds a research project, but it also recognizes the potential of the recipient as a researcher, educator and leader in their field. How do you hope to fulfill that potential? 

I hope to fulfill this potential by establishing and leading a research team of undergraduate and graduate students who search for creative ways to apply their expertise to new problems across a wide range of disciplines. This project is only the beginning. We don’t yet know where it will take us and what we will learn from it. It is my hope and goal that this project is a springboard for my entire research team to think broadly, which will lead us on a path of new discoveries and widespread future impact.


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