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Lessons from the Field – The Value of Interdisciplinary Research

Posted on October 28th, 2015 by in New Materials & Applications


A researcher in Materials Science describes the importance of reading and researching outside standard fields of research – talking about his results of combining materials science, biology and medicine.

Anthony B. Brennan, Ph.D., D.Sc. is a professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Florida, where he leads the Brennan Research Group. But he also has a strong interest in biology and has a joint appointment to the University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering. Much of his research, therefore, lies at the intersection of materials science, biology and medicine.”

One of his projects, funded by the Office of Naval Research (ONR), is to find ways to reduce the buildup of algae and marine organisms on ships’ hulls. According to the ONR, a biofilm can increase drag by 20% and barnacles by up to 60%. This buildup reduces vessel speeds by as much 10%,increases fuel usage by 40% and costs the Navy $1 billion annually in fuel and maintenance.

A decade ago, he was looking at algae growth on some test panels at Pearl Harbor, accompanied by botanists and
marine biologists from the University of Hawaii (UH). His observation that a passing submarine looked like a whale
sparked a conversation about which marine animals resisted fouling on their skin.

After considering and rejecting whales, porpoises, manatees and sea turtles, the group agreed that nurse sharks remained algae-free, despite those sharks spending much of their time immobile.

“I said that it would be interesting to know what is on their skin,” relates Brennan. “I didn’t know anything about it and neither did the people there, so it got me looking into the field of sharks.”

Brennan’s research was assisted by members of the Materials Science and Biomedical Engineering departments, a
chemical engineering student and others.

The University of Florida has an extensive shark research program and a repository which includes bone and skin
samples of every known species of shark, so Brennan obtained a skin sample, made an impression of the dermal denticles and examined the impression with scanning electron microscopy. The denticles ribbed, diamond-shaped scales with — a vascular core of dentin encased in an acellular layer similar to the enamel on human teeth — reduce drag and protect against fouling.

Based on the skin samples, Brennan’s team created an artificial film, called Sharklet, composed of diamond-shaped “denticles” that are 26 microns wide and 3 microns deep, which can be applied to surfaces to prevent algal growth without the use of toxic chemicals. While this technology has yet to be applied to ships hulls, we can expect to see it soon in hospitals.

It turns out that one organism that the zoologists at the University of Hawaii’s Kewalo Marine Laboratory, which is also engaged in fouling research for the Navy, use to measure the fouling potential of a
surface is a particular type of tube worm.

That tube worm requires a bacterial biofilm on the surface before the larvae will land there and attach. Sharklet samples were sent to UH researchers for testing.

“Be ready to read and to examine outside your field,” […]. “You just have to be open to new ideas and meet new people. Go out and seek new ideas.”
– Anthony B. Brennan PH.D., D.SC.,
Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Florida

Read more key lessons about the value of interdisciplinary research.

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