Subra Suresh

Subra Suresh
Subra Suresh
  • From:

    Carnegie Mellon University | Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania | Massachusetts Institute of Technology | Cambridge, Massachusetts

  • Year:


  • Subject:

    Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science

  • Award:

    Benjamin Franklin Medal

  • Citation:

    For outstanding contributions to our understanding of the mechanical behavior of materials in applications ranging from large structures down to the atomic level. This research also showed how deformation of biological cells can be linked to human disease.

Structure and shape are of obvious importance in a large mechanical object, such as a bridge or a skyscraper. But those factors can also be of supreme importance on the microscopic level, such as the cracks and weaknesses that form in metals and other materials as they undergo stress and wear. And sometimes, the shape and structure of a living thing, even as small as an individual cell, can be the difference between life and death. Subra Suresh may be a mechanical engineer by trade rather than a biologist or physician, and yet he demonstrated how mechanics on the very small scale—nanomechanics—can explain one of humankind's deadliest diseases, malaria. It's merely one example of his remarkable achievements as one of the world's leading researchers in materials science, in a career marked by crossing traditional boundaries to solve problems by synthesizing new interdisciplinary approaches.

Born and raised in India, Suresh studied at the Indian Institute of Technology, then came to the U.S. to obtain his M.S. at Iowa State University and his Sc.D. at MIT. His doctoral research on the propagation of cracks in steel and the micromechanical phenomena that control them led him to further research on fatigue and fracture. He synthesized this work in his 1991 book, Fatigue of Materials, which is still recognized as the most authoritative textbook on the topic. Suresh later turned his attention to the mechanical behavior of thin films, such as those used in computer chips and microelectronics. He developed new methods of studying and modeling thin films and their defects, function, and structures that have significantly influenced not only other researchers, but the design and manufacture of thin films. His second book, Thin Film Materials, is considered the most comprehensive treatment of this highly important field.

Suresh's work in biomechanics provides further evidence of the fascinating way in which his career has encompassed such a broad arc, ranging from the macroscale to the microscopic and nanoscopic. Using an advanced technique known as optical or laser tweezers to examine individual red blood cells, Suresh discovered that the microscopic parasite responsible for malaria invades the red blood cells and changes their structure, making them stiffer and more adhesive. This allows the infected cells to sequester themselves in the walls of small blood vessels, escaping their destruction by the immune system and causing other symptoms. He has extended this research investigating the effects and implications of mechanical deformation of cells by disease processes into other areas, such as pancreatic and breast cancer metastasis.

Suresh has championed the interdisciplinary philosophy not only in his own research but also in his many prestigious academic and administrative positions. He was nominated by President Obama and unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate to become director of the National Science Foundation in 2010. In mid-2013, he stepped down from the NSF and accepted a position as president of Carnegie Mellon University. During three decades at MIT, he held joint faculty appointments at in materials science, mechanical engineering, biological engineering, and health sciences and technology and he served as head of the materials science department and dean of the School of Engineering. He led the efforts to establish the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) Center and the Physics-DMSE-Spectroscopy Infrastructure project, among many other contributions. Perhaps his most widely significant recent collaborative achievement is his founding directorship of the Global Enterprise for MicroMechanics and Molecular Medicine (GEM4) project, in which more than 12 leading institutions around the world have joined to work on problems that span the boundaries of science, technology, medicine, and public health. In his new post at Carnegie Mellon, Subra Suresh will surely continue to bring together disparate fields, break down barriers, and forge new intellectual alliances to solve the complex questions and scientific problems of the 21st century.

Information as of April 2013