College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

New job, new CAREER Award; Wenjie Xia’s first semester in Aerospace Engineering is notable

Wenjie Xia

Wenjie XiaWenjie Xia joined Iowa State’s Department of Aerospace Engineering faculty just before the start of the fall 2023 semester. Having barely gotten his feet wet in his new job, he was notified that he was the recipient of a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award.

The CAREER Award is the most prestigious award presented by the NSF to support junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through research and education, and the integration of these endeavors in the context of their organizations’ missions.

Xia’s award (for his submission “CAREER: Mechanics of Nano-Crumples”) will support research that seeks to understand the fundamental mechanical behavior of crumpled structures across multiple scales. Crumpled matter is ubiquitous in nature and daily life, serving both biological and engineered purposes, ranging from macromolecules, delicate pieces of petal packed in a flower bud, to geological formation.

It is a rapidly developing research area to improve the strength and functionality of many structural materials. Understanding the mechanics of crumples at small scales is quite challenging. This award will develop an integrated experimental-computational framework for determining and predicting the complex behavior of crumpled matter composed of nano-sheets. The predictive models and tools will enable and facilitate the design and development of lightweight, multifunctional applications in energy storage, drug delivery, solid lubrication, and load-bearing composite structures.

Computer-generated graphic showing a crumpled nanostructure particle
A crumpled nanostructure, illustrated in this graphic, is at the heart of Xia’s research. They are being researched to improve the strength and functionality of structures used in many components.

Xia’s research will specifically focus on how surface adhesion as a key driving force could improve the load-bearing capacity and flaw tolerance of nano-crumpled sheets by spatially rearranging stress distributions. It is believed that crumpled sheets are less sensitive to geometric imperfections compared to ordered designs of mechanical metamaterials that are based, for example, on origami or lattice structures.

The award will also include an education component to focus on broadening participation and knowledge transfer to K-12, undergraduate, and graduate students with emphasis on underrepresented groups. The implementation of artistic elements in the form of visual and paper arts will be a key strategy to engage students through hands-on outreach activities and exciting learning material.

“Receiving the NSF CAREER Award is undoubtedly a significant milestone in my early career. This prestigious award not only shows the importance of my research but also provides critical support to advance it,” Xia said. “Beyond research, I am particularly excited about the unique opportunity it brings to integrate art elements into research and education to engage students and broaden their participation in STEM, with the potential to benefit our Midwest regions and beyond.”

The total awarded amount is $589,486 for a five-year period (2023-2028).

Xia holds a Ph.D. in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Northwestern University (2016).  He came to Iowa State’s Department of Aerospace Engineering as an Associate Professor from North Dakota State University, where he was an assistant professor of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering. He is a lead editor of a new book, “Fundamentals of Multiscale Modeling of Structural Materials,” published in 2022, which will be used for research and education purposes. He currently mentors one postdoctoral fellow and seven graduate students in his Iowa State research group.

Other honors Xia has received include the recent American Chemistry Society (ACS) Division of Polymeric Materials: Science and Engineering (PMSE) Young Investigator Award; the Royal Society of Chemistry Molecular Systems Design and Engineering Emerging Investigator award; the National  Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Material Measurement Laboratory Accolade for Technical Excellence Award; the Materials Genome Initiative Fellowship; and the Chinese Government Award for Outstanding Students Abroad.