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An Interview with Professor and Associate Dean Michael Solomon, Newly Elected AAAS Fellow

“It’s all about relationships, continuous learning, and meeting different people,” Michael Solomon summarized when I had the pleasure to interview him about his work, academic interests and outstanding scientific achievements last week. Solomon is a Professor of Chemical Engineering and Macromolecular Science and Engineering, as well as Associate Dean for Academic Programs and Initiatives at the Rackham Graduate School. He is also one of nine University of Michigan faculty members elected as Fellows of the esteemed American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) this year.

Established in 1848, the AAAS was the first permanent national organization in the U.S. to promote scientific research with the mission to "advance science, engineering, and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people." AAAS is the largest general scientific society today, and publisher of the prestigious scientific journal Science. In order to become a Fellow, a researcher has to be nominated by either the highest leaders of the organization, or at least three current AAAS Fellows from different institutions. The AAAS Council then votes on which of the nominated individuals are to become the new Fellows of the organization. According to AAAS, scientists are chosen as Fellows "because of their efforts toward advancing science applications that are deemed scientifically or socially distinguished.”

In the case of Michael Solomon, an AAAS statement notes that he was elected into the society “for distinguished contributions to the field of colloid science, particularly for creating and understanding colloidal self-assemblies with new symmetries and new functions.” All new Fellows will be officially inducted and honored on February 18th, 2017, at the AAAS Annual Meeting, the world’s largest general scientific conference, held this year in Boston, MA.

Professor Solomon will travel to Boston to attend the ceremony and appreciates this distinguished honor not just for himself, but on behalf of his entire research team, including graduate student assistants: “As a [research] group, you work for years and years on these projects that just have really long-term fruition […]. So to get recognition like this - which comes so far and few between - is really delightful. It was a nice thing for me, it was a nice thing for my group: The recognition that what we’re doing really does mean something scientifically.”

When I asked him to describe his research, underpinning his election as an AAAS Fellow, in a way that a non-engineer like myself can understand, he explained: “I work with tiny particles; materials called colloids. They are all around. Lots of people have heard of molecules, and then we have materials that we can see - colloids are the thing that’s in between. You can only see them with a microscope. […] An example would be the fat globules that are in your milk. The reason that your milk looks ‘milky’ is because there’s something really tiny in there that basically reflects all the light so it doesn’t go through. So basically, colloids are all over the place naturally. And it turns out that they’re really at the foundation of how we engineer lots of things. […] So we try to organize, we try to understand, at that microscopic scale, and organize those colloids into structures that are useful. That’s at its root what we’ve been working on.”

One example of such structures and a fascinating area of application he is particularly interested in is color. He says: “for example, how your car gets painted is they have lots of little tiny particles and spray them on. […] If you ever look at the iridescence of the wings of a butterfly, or if you ever had an opal gem, they’re also color, but that color is different. It’s because the color is produced by colloids. And it’s a kind of color that never goes away.”

In talking about research with Michael Solomon, it immediately becomes apparent how deeply he cares about not only his own graduate students, working with him in the lab and completing their doctoral degrees under his supervision, but also U-M graduate students at large. In his role as Associate Dean at Rackham, he serves as Chair of Rackham’s Faculty Committee on Mentoring (MORE), a campus-wide program. He says: “We have been at the forefront of trying to introduce mentoring plans, which are two-way conversations between faculty and students.[…] I think it’s the thing we’ve had the most impact with and it’s been my most enjoyable commitment so far in my work at Rackham.”

Reflecting on his work as both a faculty member and a graduate school administrator, he shared: “You know, I wouldn’t be anywhere with my research without my graduate students. And this role here, I mean, Rackham isn’t anything without working with the graduate programs. Rackham does everything by collaboration, and that’s really what I do as Associate Dean. And it’s actually the same for research. […] Even with all that research that we were just talking about, that’s all done in collaboration with my graduate students. And basically everything that resulted in the AAAS election was collaborative work with my students. So the papers that really underpin this [election] were multi-authored papers where I was the lead author and then the students were authors.”

He is committed to supporting the graduate student community in any way he can, through direct mentoring of his own students, and through increasing access to mentorship opportunities for all U-M graduate students in his role as Associate Dean at Rackham: “In a nutshell, I think that’s really what the Associate Dean role is: to be a connector among all these different graduate programs so that faculty and graduate programs can be the best they can be and sometimes something is happening in another part of campus that could really help them, and so that’s the way that we’re trying to impact the student experience at Rackham.[…] Sometimes there’s a bit of challenge, because, for example, a program in Engineering might not think that there’s something they could learn from, say, an LSA program and vice versa, but in fact often there is, and maybe it has to be conveyed in a slightly different way, but there are a lot of great practices across the campus that one of our jobs is just to get them as broadly distributed as we can.”

As his AAAS induction ceremony is coming up, Michael Solomon hopes to continue to build new connections and to focus more on public engagement in science and the effective communication of scientific processes and findings, both key areas of current AAAS initiatives and important topics for any modern scientist to learn about. Another aspect of AAAS he particularly appreciates is “its advocacy that it does for science and science policy” which he feels “is more important than ever right at this moment.”

Please join me in congratulating Michael Solomon on his election as an AAAS Fellow, and in thanking him for all the great work he does on behalf of the graduate student community here at U-M.