University of San Diego Receives $1 Million Grant from Keck Foundation to Create Futuristic Materials

Imagine a bridge that could sense a crack forming and heal itself before disaster ensues. A material that can move and respond to external cues to perform dangerous search and rescue operations or explore the far reaches of space.

A $1 million grant from the Los Angeles-based W.M. Keck Foundation to the University of San Diego will fund research toward creating a revolutionary class of autonomous ‘intelligent’ materials that can perform work, change shape, and move by harnessing biologically-derived molecular components.

“We are very excited to receive this grant,” said USD Professor and Chair of the Physics and Biophysics Department Rae M. Robertson-Anderson who is the principal investigator for the grant. “I have goosebumps just thinking about the fact that we could turn this vision into a reality.”

Specifically, Robertson-Anderson and her team will “fuse the skeletal proteins from cells with circadian clock proteins to engineer a suite of tunable materials that can autonomously stiffen and soften,” she explained. “This revolutionary approach to materials engineering has the potential to create an entirely new class of ‘living’ materials that can not only intelligently respond to external signals but also anticipate future demands.” 

This “high-risk, high-reward” research expressly aligns with the Keck Research Program’s goals to fund projects that are “distinctive and novel in their approach, question the prevailing paradigm or have the potential to break open new territory in their field.”

USD is the lead institution for the three-year, interdisciplinary grant along with the University of Chicago, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and Rochester Institute of Technology. The institutions have been working together for several years on preliminary research for this project but this grant "will allow us to move forward in a major way," Robertson-Anderson said. 

The grant also will give University of San Diego undergraduates the opportunity to play a key role in truly transformative research, she said. 

 “We are thrilled and grateful to the Keck Foundation for investing in USD to undertake this scientific research that will benefit the university in so many ways,” said USD President James T. Harris.

Based in Los Angeles, the W. M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 by the late W. M. Keck, founder of the Superior Oil Company. The foundation’s grant program is focused primarily on pioneering efforts in the areas of medical research, science and engineering and undergraduate education. For more information, please visit

About the University of San Diego

The University of San Diego sets the standard for an engaged, contemporary Catholic university where innovative Changemakers confront humanity’s urgent challenges. With more than 8,000 students from 75 countries and 44 states, USD is the youngest independent institution on the U.S. News & World Report list of top 100 universities in the United States. USD’s eight academic divisions include the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Business, the Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering, the School of Law, the School of Leadership and Education Sciences, the Hahn School of Nursing and Health Science, the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies, and the Division of Professional and Continuing Education. USD recently concluded our successful $317M Leading Change: The Campaign for USD, which represented the most ambitious fundraising effort in the history of the university. In September 2016, USD introduced Envisioning 2024, a strategic plan that capitalizes on the university’s recent progress and aligns new strategic goals with current strengths to help shape a vision for the future as the university looks ahead to its 75th anniversary in the year 2024.


Liz Harman