Introducing Professor Joelle Frechette

Joelle Frechette will join the College of Chemistry in July 2021. Joelle Frechette on the John Hopkins University campus. (Photo: courtesy Joelle Frechette.)

“I am looking forward to joining the CBE department at the College of Chemistry,” Frechette said. “Berkeley has some amazing scientists and facilities. It will be interesting to see what new research projects grow out of my relocating to the West Coast.”

Joelle Frechette

by Marge d’Wylde

We are delighted to introduce Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (CBE) Joelle Frechette who will be joining us this summer from John Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering. Frechette graduated from Princeton with a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering and Materials Science in 2005. After postdoctoral work at UC Berkeley in the lab of CBE Professor Roya Maboudian, she joined the Johns Hopkins faculty in 2006. She was awarded the NSF CAREER award in 2008, the 3M untenured faculty award in 2008, and the ONR Young Investigator Award in 2011.  In addition, she was elected as a Fellow of the American Chemical Society in 2017. She is a faculty fellow of the Hopkins Extreme Materials Institute. Currently she is vice president of the Adhesion Society.

A native of Montreal Canada, her interest in science began late in high school. Frechette comments, “I liked how science taught me how the world works. It helped me understand my environment.”

She discovered geology before college. “There was a lot of chemistry and physics involved in my first geology class. But I really appreciated the connection to the world around me, for example seeing rock formations while driving in a car and understanding their origins. It really struck a nerve, and something clicked. I went on and took a second geology class and that’s what lead me to materials engineering in college afterwards.”

She went on to undergraduate study at the Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal which included a  year abroad at the University of Arizona. It was there she discovered her passion for research. She was encouraged to apply to the Chemical Engineering Department at Princeton and went on to receive her masters and Ph.D. at that institution.  While at Princeton her interest shifted to the measurement of surface forces.

After graduate school, Frechette investigated unwanted adhesion in microelectromechanical systems in a postdoctoral project at UC Berkeley in the lab of Roya Maboudian. Frechette comments, “I was a big fan of Roya’s work. I had followed her research in grad school. The connection between surface phenomena to micro & nanotech was really neat. It was a super rewarding but short postdoc. Too short actually.”

From there, she  joined the chemical and biomolecular engineering faculty at Johns Hopkins. Once settled into her lab, she began publishing research on adhesion in fluid environments, particles at interfaces, and electrowetting. Frechette brings a broad engineering and chemical perspective to her research projects. She has repeatedly found solutions that are creative in their planning and execution.

In a novel experiment, Frechette and a chemical engineering colleague utilized off-the-shelf equipment, including Legos, to develop a way to visualize how nano particles travel through an array of obstacles. The design was a human scale version of a “lab on a chip” which scientists were using to  determine how to separate single molecules. The ability to change the configuration of the Lego pieces, which stood in for obstacles designed to sift the particles on the chip, mimicked several sorting scenarios allowing the researchers to easily make multiple observations. Frechette said. “It’s interesting that you can spend so much time devising elaborate research projects for investigations. And here, we came up with a very simple idea that worked really well.”

Currently her lab is looking at how things stick, or do not stick together in soft materials. Some of the lab’s output is in the area of adhesion under extreme conditions. Adhesives are a huge industry. Frechette is drawn by the interdisciplinary aspects of adhesion science as it brings together chemists, engineers, and physicists. Frechette enjoys the engineering process and industry impact.

Frechette collaborated with the 3M company to investigate how surface properties affect wet adhesion (when band aids are exposed to water and sweat for example). “This was a very interesting research problem,” Frechette stated. “A member of the lab wound up designing and building a new instrument for the project. It was dubbed the ‘multimode force microscope’. It is basically a fluorescent inverted microscope coupled with normal and lateral force measurement. The imaging capabilities allow us to monitor the deformation profile during adhesion measurements.”

Other aspects of her research program are in the area of colloids and nanoparticles at fluid interfaces. Her group is also researching how to use particles at interfaces towards the development of optical materials. In a 2019 publication, a research team she led announced they had created a liquid manufacturing process to make compound lenses with most of the features of the mosquito eye as a potential miniaturized vision system for robots and drones. To create the microlens, the researchers used a capillary microfluidic device to produce oil droplets surrounded by silica nanoparticles. They organized multiple microlenses into a closely packed array around a larger oil droplet then polymerized the structure with ultraviolet light to yield a compound lens with a viewing angle of 149 degrees. They used a novel strategy to test the lens by printing numbers on a flexible, transparent sheet that was flexed above the lens.

Polymeria3 (digital print on aluminum) explores what happens to sticky polymers, at a molecular level, when two adhered surfaces are separated. (Photo courtesy Christopher P. Sloan.)

A recent interdisciplinary art project exhibited in 2020 at Hopkins Extreme Materials Institute, showcased research from the labs of Frechette, and two fellow John Hopkins colleagues, visualized by conceptual artist Christopher Sloan. The exhibit was titled “Invisible Domain”. Sloan, a conceptual artist with a long career as an art director at National Geographic, was inspired by the molecular, atomic, and subatomic-level projects the researchers were working on. The outcome were stunning 3D rendered models and printed works on aluinum. [1]

Frechette commented, “The students in my group were stimulated by their discussions with Chris. The artwork that came out of the project was beautiful.”

Jeffrey Reimer, Chair of CBE commented on Frechette’s arrival, “Professor Joelle Frechette brings to the chemical engineering discipline experimental rigor, insightful analyses, a proven track record of undergraduate teaching and research mentorship, administrative experience as a program leader, and an ability to articulate complex notions to a broad community. CBE believes her addition to the Berkeley campus will bring us further distinction and we look forward to seeing her in person in Gilman Hall!”