Liheng Cai headshot

Liheng Cai

Assistant Professor
Unit: School of Engineering and Applied Science
Department: Department of Materials Science and Engineering
Office location and address
Wilsdorf 228
395 McCormick Rd
Charlottesville, Virginia 22903
B.S. Physics, Lanzhou University, 2006
Ph.D. Materials Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2012
Postdoctoral Fellow, Harvard University, 2013-2017

Our lab’s interests lie at the interface of soft matter and biology. We aim to understand and control the interactions between active soft materials, like responsive polymers or biological gels, and living systems, like bacteria or cells and tissues in the human body. We do this by using a combination of experimental and theoretical approaches; specific expertise includes polymer physics and chemistry, molecular engineering, macro- and micro-rheology, microscopy and image analysis, microfluidics and 3D printing.

We focus on three directions:

  • 3D printable soft materials. 3D printing has the potential of producing novel, structured materials with controlled features on multi-length scales, from microns to millimeters or larger. However, the basic materials available for 3D printing are limited: Plastics remain the most ubiquitous feedstock for industrial and desktop 3D printers. We explore new design principles to create 3D printable soft materials and use those materials to interface with soft biological objects.
  • Human lung defense. As we are alive, we need to breathe; and this constantly brings in infectious particulates into our lung. The overarching question we are asking is: How can the human lung fight against numerous inhaled infectious particulates and maintain functional through its lifetime? We use microfluidics to create a novel human airway model to study why human lung defense works for healthy people but fails for patients with chronic lung disease, and use this model to discover therapeutics to restore human lung defense.
  • Biofilms. Bacteria often live in complex environments such as gut and soil. Sometimes success bacteria transport does a good thing, but not if they dwell and form colonies or biofilms. Understanding and control interactions between bacteria and complex environments become essential in health and environmental science. Integrating polymer science, molecular engineering, single-cell fluorescence microscopy and microfluidics, we focus on how bacteria as an active swimmer influence the dynamics of surrounding matrices and formation of bacterial colonies or biofilms in mucus and soil.
CAREER: Adaptive Photonic Polymers
Source: U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF)
February 01, 2020 – January 31, 2025
Development of a Novel Encapsulation Technology for Type 1 Diabetes
Source: Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Internatl.
February 01, 2022 – January 31, 2023
Molecular Architecture Driven Self-Assembly of Block Copolymers
Source: American Chemical Society
September 01, 2020 – August 31, 2022
Voxelated 3D Bioprinting of Multiscale Porous Scaffolds for Islet Transplantation
Source: Commonwealth Health Research Board
July 01, 2021 – June 30, 2022
Preventing Catheter Associated Infections
Source: Virginia Commonwealth University
June 01, 2018 – July 31, 2020
MSE 2090: Introduction to Materials Science
Credits: 3
The field of Materials Science drives technological innovations underlying all engineering fields. This course provides a scientific foundation to promote a rigorous understanding of materials from an atomistic to macroscopic viewpoint. Material systems (polymers, metals, ceramics, and electronic) are developed sequentially to provide a framework to explain the fundamental, physical origins of observable and important macro scale properties.
MSE 2500: Special Topics in Materials Science and Engineering
Credits: 1–3
Special topic courses in Materials Science and Engineering
ENGR 2595: Special Topics in Engineering
Credits: 1–4
Special Topics in Engineering.
MSE 4055: Nanoscale Science & Technology
Credits: 3
Covers the basic phenomena exhibited by material structures at the scale of one hundred nanometers of less, and the applications to technology. The goal of the course is to provide students with fundamental physical principles which can be used to analyze nanoscale phenomena, the assembly of nanostructures, and their characterization. Different properties: electrical, mechanical, optical, etc. will be discussed in detail on the basis of quantum mechanics and the atomistic description of solids. The description will include the behavior of clusters, nanoparticles, graphene, carbon nanotubes, nanoporous material, and examples from the natural world (DNA, membranes, cells, mineral nanostructures). Different methods of fabrication of nanostructures will be covered, from self-assembly to direct writing with electron beams. The characterization of the microstructures by different methods will be described and compared. The course will give a broad view of current and potential applications, with consideration of economic an societal aspects of the technology. Prerequisite: Exposure to Quantum Mechanics (MSE 3670, PHYS 2320, PHYS 2620, or CHEM 3610) or instructor permission.
MSE 4592: Special Topics in Materials Science
Credits: 1–3
Advanced undergraduate course on topics not normally covered in other course offerings. The topic usually reflects new developments in the materials science and engineering field. Offerings are based on student and faculty interests.
CHE 4995: Chemical Engineering Research
Credits: 1–3
Library and laboratory study of an engineering or manufacturing problem conducted in close consultation with a departmental faculty member, often including the design, construction, and operation of laboratory scale equipment. Requires progress reports and a comprehensive written report. Prerequisite: Instructor permission.
CHE 5561: Special Topics in Chemical Engineering
Credits: 1–3
Applies engineering science, design methods, and system analysis to developing areas and current problems in chemical engineering. Topics are announced at registration.
MSE 6592: Topics in Material Science
Credits: 3
A study of special subjects related to developments in materials science under the direction of members of the staff. Offered as required under the guidance of a faculty member.
CHE 7995: Supervised Project Research
Credits: 1–12
Formal record of student commitment to project research for Master of Engineering degree under the guidance of a faculty advisor. May be repeated as necessary.
MSE 8999: Masters Degree Research
Credits: 1–12
Formal record of student commitment to master's thesis research under the guidance of a faculty advisor. May be repeated as necessary.
BME 8999: Master's Research
Credits: 1–12
Master's Research
MSE 9999: PHD Dissertation Research
Credits: 1–12
Formal record of student commitment to doctoral research under the guidance of a faculty advisor. May be repeated as necessary.
CHE 9999: Dissertation Research
Credits: 1–12
Formal record of student commitment to doctoral research under the guidance of a faculty advisor. Registration may be repeated as necessary.
BME 9999: Dissertation
Credits: 1–12
Formal record of student commitment to doctoral research under the guidance of a faculty advisor. May be repeated as necessary.

Harvard University Postdoctoral Award for Professional Development 2013

North Carolina Impact Award 2013

Chun-Tsung Scholar 2004