Studying Materials Is Like Listening To An Orchestral Symphony

By Alec Arbia, Written Communications Assistant

photo of Rose Cersonsky, UConn MSE alumna and current assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.

Rose Cersonsky UConn alumna (MSE ’14) and current assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

Rose Cersonsky, UConn alumna, came up with a beautiful metaphor to explain how she sees materials science and engineering (MSE). “I consider studying molecules like listening to an orchestral symphony. We’re seeing all of these intense, complex forces at play, and it’s making this beautiful music. My job, because I do fundamental theoretical work, is to try to write the sheet music. I look at what’s happening, trying to figure out what forces are at play and what’s making that music – who’s got the solo at one moment versus another. I grew up a theater kid doing a lot of artistic expression, and so I see this as a continuation of that.”

Originally, Cersonsky enrolled at UConn as a civil engineering major. However, after developing an interest in polymers, and sitting in on some classes for different majors with one of her best friends, “I fell in love with the art that is materials science.”

When asked if she had any memorable professors, Cersonsky told the story of how Emeritus Professor Harold Brody started his first class of the year. For the first fifteen minutes, he talked about the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “We all were afraid something was seriously wrong. Until eventually, he stops and he goes, “and that, students, is how we define work. Work is equal to FDR.” I will never forget it. I still bring it up every time I teach work in thermodynamics.”

Other faculty members Cersonsky made a point to mention were “Bryan Huey, who has looked out for me the entirety of my career – and Dan Burkey. I spent a lot of time in the undergraduate administration office trying to figure out how to continue to afford college, and so there’s people that have infinite favors from me and that I consider to be in my corner until the end of time.”

Currently, Cersonsky is an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. In regard to her choice to teach that subject instead of materials science and engineering, Cersonsky said, “I got my Ph.D. in something more akin to chemical engineering, and so really sitting at the intersection I applied to jobs in both arenas. My choice was less to do with the name of the department than the ethos of the department, about who I wanted to work with and build my career with. It was up to them to decide if my research fit in the department, but I wanted to be working with people that I knew would be the colleagues I wanted to have.” At least in Wisconsin, that’s in CBE. Though Rose is also an affiliated faculty member in MSE.

“I decided to pursue a career in academia four months before I applied to jobs,” Cersonsky admitted. “I wanted something where I would have the ability to do the research and the inquiry that I find really fascinating. And to work with students, I mean – watching students get it, watching students understand something for the first time, and connect it, and then realize how cool it feels to understand this thing – it’s incredible. Realizing, ‘oh my god – I just connected something for somebody.’ And they’re going to go through life fundamentally changed for knowing this. In that respect, there’s no career like academia.”

Cersonsky went on to explain how she keeps students engaged and learning effectively – by using humor and lots of analogizing moments. “I was teaching failure modes in my last class with a Bop It. Failure modes are all the different ways a sample can break. You can pull on it, you can twist it, you can compress it, or you can shear it, and so I asked, ‘Who here was born in the 90s?’ and some hands didn’t raise, and I died a little bit. I then showed them the Bop It commercial from the 90s, which goes, ‘push it, twist it, pull it’. Those are three out of the four failure modes.”

When asked what her job’s primary responsibilities are, Cersonsky broke her answer up into the three parts of her job: professor, researcher, and administrator. “My goal as an assistant professor is to teach the courses where I can make sure the students in both my classes and my research group are learning the right things – where I’m able to attract students who are interested in the research that I do. And then with said research, my job is to do cool stuff and convince other people to get funding to do cool stuff. Lastly, administratively, it’s about being a contributing member to the department. Making sure that in the communities that I’m a part of, I’m helping this department grow and function.”

In technical terms, Cersonsky’s research group could be described as developing and applying mathematical languages for representing materials and chemistry in machine learning models. In simpler terms, Cersonsky describes what they do as “understanding and decoupling forces in weirdly shaped molecules. We’re trying to understand how molecules interact with each other, using and developing different machine learning methods to make understanding them easier and more conclusive. Essentially, we’re leveraging molecular simulation and machine learning to – as I call it – see the world from the viewpoint of molecules. Because molecules don’t see x y z coordinates, they don’t see the inputs that we’ve put into our simulation. They see their universe – and what does that look like for them?”

This research can be used to “help build accurate, interpretable surrogate models for machine learning. All in all, what we do can be classified as fairly fundamental — we design software and methods for enabling larger-scale analysis of molecular systems and materials behavior.”

The most difficult part of Cersonsky’s job is “keeping in mind what your own expectations are in the context of everyone else’s expectations. There’s going to be people for whom you should really take their expectations and advice into account – you learn who those trusted people are – and then there’s going to be people to which you say, ‘That’s not me.’ Knowing where that line is – and having the strength to not try to please everyone – is very hard.”

When asked what advice she has for those considering majoring in MSE, Cersonsky said, “Do it. One thing that was really helpful for me in my own journey – and something I’m really explicit about as a professor now – is to understand that when you’re in class, your job is to learn and your professor’s job is to teach. That was something I struggled with a lot as an undergrad, of feeling the power and the confidence to not know things.”

Cersonsky admits, “Of course, it took a long time to get to where I am in terms of scientific confidence. Especially as someone not traditionally represented in this field, I did (and still do) have to work through the feeling of not knowing if I belong. But, at the end of the day, I get to decide how I see myself as a scientist and engineer; I decided that I belong.”

Published: December 7, 2023

Categories: alumni, news

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