Michael Rubinstein: Creating Communities and Collaborations to Study Soft Matter

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Physicist Michael Rubinstein has always been willing to go new places and try new things. In 1977, he immigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union, seeking opportunity. “The Soviet Union looked stable then, but there was no future for me to do what I wanted to do,” he says. As a college student, his only career choice seemed to be physics teacher.

Instead, he came to the United States with his family midway through his college education. He finished his undergraduate degree in physics at the California Institute of Technology, and earned a PhD at Harvard. After a decade at Eastman Kodak, he came to UNC-Chapel Hill in 1995. He will join the Duke faculty in January 2018.

Rubinstein relishes collaborating, especially with scientists in other fields. “I have 25 international collaborators,” he says. “It’s a lot, but it’s a lot of fun. I like developing new theories, studying new systems, facing new challenges.”

He works at the interface of physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, and medicine, in the relatively new field of soft matter. “The center of my work is based in polymer physics,” he says, “but I am extending it into other areas of soft matter science, which is broader than physics. I am also looking at other objects besides polymers: surfactants, colloids, foams, liquid crystals. . . .”

The interdisciplinary nature of his field is reflected in his appointment at Duke, which is evenly split between four departments: physics, chemistry, biomedical engineering (BME), and mechanical engineering and materials science (MEMS). He will also participate in a program called MEDx that brings together faculty from the engineering and medical schools.

Rubinstein and new physics professor Christoph Schmidt are creating a center to study soft matter. Through the center, Rubinstein hopes to create a “new community,” first by connecting existing faculty doing research related to soft matter, and then by attracting faculty to Duke, distributed among several departments. “I hope that our center will become highly visible nationally and that Duke will become one of the leading soft matter centers in the country,” he says.

Josh Socolar, professor of physics, says, “The combination of the two of them—Michael Rubinstein and Christoph Schmidt—brings to Duke a really high profile strength in soft matter that we haven’t had before. There’s a new level of excitement here.”

Rubinstein studies polymers, large molecules with repeating units. He creates theoretical models and computer simulations that describe how polymers move and self-assemble. He is the co-author of a textbook, Polymer Physics, that’s used in more than 100 universities. 

Because of his expertise in this area, researchers from the UNC medical school approached him several years ago wanting help with some questions: How does mucus (made of polymers) trap and remove particles in our lungs? And how does the process go awry in the lungs of people with cystic fibrosis and other diseases?

Using polymer physics as a guide, Rubinstein came up with a new model describing mucus behavior in the lungs, and worked with his colleagues to design experiments to test it. “I had never done experiments myself,” he says. “I had a theoretical graduate student, who agreed to test these new ideas.” (That student, who has just joined the faculty at UVA, ended up becoming an experimentalist.) The experiments confirmed Rubinstein’s model. Next, the group wants to design ways to measure the viscosity and pressure of mucus in patients, much the way we measure body temperature or blood pressure. The ultimate goal is a medical treatment to improve the performance of lung mucus in patients with lung disease.

Before the lung project could even get off the ground, Rubinstein says he and the other team members, representing four or five departments, met weekly to learn each others’ languages. To a physicist, the word “model” conjures up images of Ising models, whereas a biologist thinks of a mouse model for a disease. “It was really quite fun,” he says. He hopes to convene similar groups at Duke to spark novel ideas. 

Rubinstein enjoys bringing groups together, whether local, regional, or international. He was one of the original organizers of a 10-year-old Triangle soft matter discussion group, and he’s starting a unit within the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics to establish an annual international conference on soft matter.

The field of soft matter encompasses new materials, which is another area of fascination for Rubinstein. He uses his knowledge of the physical properties and behaviors of polymers and other large molecules to come up with ideas for making materials with extraordinary strength or softness, or self-healing abilities. He’s also working on an idea for underwater glue.

In his scant free time, Rubinstein enjoys reading Russian poetry, going to the opera, and traveling, often combining family vacations with travel for work. For someone who has been so many places, both physically and intellectually, there’s no telling where he might go next.

“I’m going to Duke wide open and I’m planning to start new collaborations with different people,” he says. “I’m completely open to enter new research fields.”

Mary-Russell Roberson is a freelance science writer who lives in Durham.