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News Release

Jacobs School Materials Science Research Profiled in NSF Video

San Diego, CA, August 21, 2009 -- UC San Diego materials science researchers from the Jacobs School of Engineering are featured in  “Antlers, Shells and Beaks” , a Web video and news story produced by the National Science Foundation’s “Science Nation”, which is a relatively new online science magazine that brings cutting-edge research directly to the public.

The feature “Antlers, Shells and Beaks” profiles research on the properties of abalone shells, ram horns and elk antlers being done at the Jacobs School of Engineering.

Click here to watch the 5 minute video. An excerpt of the video transcript is below. Be sure to watch long enough to see the work being done by undergraduate Brandon Reynante.  


Antlers, Shells and Beaks

What nature can teach us about making things stronger, lighter and sharper 

The old saying “ram tough” is something some researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) are taking seriously. Ram horns are among many naturally tough objects that these scientists analyze, scrutinize and magnify thousands of times in their lab.

Marc Myers, a materials science professor, says it all started with the abalone--a sea snail with a shell as tough as nails. You think horns and antlers are tough, just try to break an abalone shell in two.

“About ten years ago, I was involved in a project for the Army,” says Myers. “We were developing armor. The abalone is made out of a chalk-like material, calcium carbonate, and although chalk is very weak, the abalone shell is thousands of times stronger than chalk. You can try to break it, you cannot succeed.”

Discovering that a simple material like chalk could be so strong left Myers curious about how shells and others objects in nature are structured for strength and durability.

Extraordinary properties 

Today, the UCSD research team, led by Myers and fellow materials science professor Joanna McKittrick, studies horns, antlers, teeth, beaks and more. “The goal of our research is to understand the extraordinary properties of these biological samples to see if we can duplicate them in the lab,” says McKittrick.

For example, how can ram horns and elk antlers withstand impacts without breaking apart? And who knew horns were so different from antlers?

“The first thing we do is cut it and look at the cross section and that’s how we identify what's known as the microstructure of the materials,” says McKittrick. “We look at it at the higher magnifications so we can see the features that we can’t see with the naked eye.”

Using a state-of-the-art scanning electron microscope (SEM) purchased with support from the National Science Foundation, scientists are seeing details they’ve never seen before. The antler and other materials can be magnified as much as fifty-thousand times.

“What’s surprising about the elk antler is it’s really a bone,” McKittrick explains. “It has very similar composition and structure to our skeletal bone.”

Read the full story on the NSF Science Nation site:



Media Contacts

Daniel Kane
Jacobs School of Engineering