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Studying Snail Shells to Build Better Body Armor

The protective armor of a rare iron-plated gastropod mollusk, the so-called "scaly-foot gastropod." (Image credit: A. Warén, Swedish Museum of Natural History)

This ScienceLives article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

Editor's Note: ScienceLives is an occasional series that puts scientists under the microscope to find out what makes them tick. The series is a cooperation between the National Science Foundation and LiveScience.

Name: Christine Ortiz ( Age: 39 Institution: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Field of Study: Materials Science and Engineering

Christine Ortiz is an associate professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. Recently Ortiz and a team of researchers at the National Science Foundation-supported Materials Research Science and Engineering Center at MIT reported on the protective armor of a rare iron-plated gastropod mollusk, the so-called "scaly-foot gastropod." The snail thrives 2.5 miles below the central Indian Ocean, within the Kairei Indian hydrothermal vent field, and its shell is fused with granular iron sulfide. Understanding the physical and mechanical properties of the snail could improve load-bearing and protective materials in everything from aircraft hulls to sports equipment. You can read more about the iron-armored snail in a recent NSF press release, and you can learn more about Ortiz as she answers the ScienceLives 10 questions below.

What inspired you to choose this field of study? I was always fascinated, since I was a small child, by nature, biology, evolution, and related fields. My current research allows me to touch on many of the areas I loved as a child.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received? Listen more than you speak.

What was your first scientific experiment as a child? My father, Robinson Ortiz, helped me build a "rectifier" when I was around 7 or 8 years old — that's an electrical device that converts alternating current (AC) to direct current (DC).

What is your favorite thing about being a scientist or researcher? There are so many. Constant intellectual challenges; creative freedom; collaborations with colleagues; mentoring students and seeing their academic growth and success; seeing your ideas come to life; making unexpected discoveries; traveling the world.

What is the most important characteristic a scientist must demonstrate in order to be an effective scientist? Technical rigor and hard work are of course critical, but just as important is an open-mind and broad vision beyond one's primary field of interest and discipline. The ability to see the unexpected in data, to fearlessly explore areas outside of one's comfort zone, and to draw on and link to bodies of work in other fields, regardless of vocabulary and language barriers.

What are the societal benefits of your research? Our work in the area of exoskeletal materials has great potential for the development of protective structures for a variety of defense and civilian (e.g. law enforcement, first responders, firefighters, personal security, etc.) applications, such as body, vehicle and structural armor for the commercial sector, composites for aerospace applications, etc. Our application of experimental and theoretical nanotechnology to the field of musculoskeletal tissues and regenerative medicine holds great promise for significant advancements towards tissue repair and/or replacement for people afflicted with such debilitating ailments as osteoarthritis. 

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher? Aside from family, numerous faculty at MIT (professors Alan Grodzinsky, Mary Boyce, Subra Suresh), who are wonderful colleagues, collaborators, mentors, and friends.

What about your field or being a scientist do you think would surprise people the most? That I get to work with the Department of Defense and the military extensively. As part of a defense study group, in the last two years, I have visited: the CIA, JFCOM, CENTCOM, SOCOM, NORTHCOM, SPACECOM, USASOC, STRATCOM, Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base, Camp Lejeune, MacDill AFB, AFRL, WPAFB, DNI,NCTC, NSA, NGA, and LLNL.

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be? Only because I backup my laptop rigorously, definitely all of our animals!

What music do you play most often in your lab or car? Science podcasts and sci-fi TV show discussion podcasts.