Postdoc Spotlight: Army postdoc developing new material for testing body armor

May 02, 2016

By Jenna Brady, ARL Public Affairs

ADELPHI, Md. (April 22, 2016) -- Researching with a purpose–that is what U.S. Army Research Laboratory Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr. Tara Edwards says she enjoys most about working at ARL.

A native of Perryville, Maryland, Edwards received a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from Widener University in 2007.

She went on to receive her doctorate in chemical and biomolecular engineering from Johns Hopkins University in 2013, where she also served as a postdoctoral fellow from 2013 to 2014.

Edwards's academic journey in the field of chemical engineering began at an early age.

"In grade school, I always did well in and enjoyed science and math," Edwards said. "It was my high-school chemistry teacher who encouraged me to earn a degree in chemical engineering as an undergraduate."

With a passion for both chemistry and math, and after attending Widener University's annual Girls Engineering Camp (which introduces high-school females to engineering as a college major), Edwards decided to seek a degree in chemical engineering.

"It was my extremely encouraging and supportive mentor and advisor at Widener University who urged me to do research and seek a doctoral degree in chemical engineering during my senior year of college," Edwards said.

As an undergraduate student, Edwards investigated the properties and applications of collagen nanofibrils and corresponding composite materials, utilizing this research to demonstrate that collagen nanofibrils can serve as flocculating agents in wastewater treatment.

Flocculating agents are chemical additives that cause suspended solids to form aggregates called flocs. They are typically either inorganic salts or water-soluble organic polymers.

At the culmination of her undergraduate studies, Edwards wanted to stay in the area to remain close to her family.

In 2007, she began a doctoral degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering at Johns Hopkins University, where her research explored colloid and surface interactions through the use of noninvasive optical microscopy and scattering techniques.

Edwards subsequently utilized this information to design and construct ordered colloidal structures via various assembly techniques; for example, applying electric fields, surface functionalizations, incorporating macromolecules, or different particles.

Once the interactions between colloidal particles and surfaces have been measured and understood, this information can be used to tune the interactions between the particles and surfaces (i.e., by changing the strength of the applied electric field, the surface functionalization, or the size or concentration of the macromolecules or particles).

When this is done at the correct conditions, the colloidal particles are made to come together to form unique colloidal structures and geometries. The resulting, ordered colloidal structures hold relevance in potential applications including drug delivery, sensors, reconfigurable devices, photonic materials and metamaterials.

According to Edwards, joining the ARL team allowed her to enjoy the best of both worlds.

"Because I knew I wanted to continue doing research for my career, I began searching for a challenging opportunity to diversify my skill set and continue to grow as a chemical engineer and research scientist in the area," Edwards said. "I liked the idea of being close to my home while being able to apply my skills and experience to make a meaningful contribution to the security of this country with ARL."

Since December 2014, Edwards has been working in the Macromolecular Science and Technology Branch of ARL's Weapons and Materials Research Directorate. Her projects focus on ballistic clay as a backing material for the testing of body armor.

This research falls into ARL's Materials Research campaign, in which the mission is to perform fundamental interdisciplinary research in materials and manufacturing science to ensure rapid and affordable development of materials—from discovery to delivery—critical to the Army of 2030.

"I am involved with a project for an internal customer to replace ballistic clay as a backing material for the testing of body armor, where ballistic clay is meant to mimic the penetration resistance of the human body to projectiles," Edwards said.

The current clay in use is Roma Plastilina No. 1, or RP #1, which is actually modeling clay used by the artistic community, she added.

"Over time, its formulation and performance have changed to meets artists' needs," Edwards said. "The current clay varies in batch-to-batch consistency and must be used at 100 degrees Fahrenheit to obtain the desired response. As a result, we are working to develop a replacement clay dedicated to the ballistic community and not subject to modifications to satisfy the artistic community."

The overall goal for Edwards's project is for the replacement material to have a consistent formulation using only three components and known mechanical properties at room temperature to match the response of RP #1. In addition to assisting in the production of this material, Edwards's job is to understand the science governing the response of ARL's ballistic-clay-replacement material.

"By comprehending the parameters that control the temperature- and rate-dependent response in our replacement material, not only will we be better able to develop a material that performs similarly to RP #1, but we will have the knowledge to be able to also tailor our formulation and, hence, the material response as needed by the ballistic community," Edwards said.

This will allow ARL to set guidelines for material manufacturing and lot-to-lot consistency/quality control for the replacement material, she said.

All of this will give the Army a consistent material to use as a backing for ballistic testing of body armor, developed specially to meet its design criteria without any further worry about changes to the material over time to accommodate the demands of the artistic community.

Edwards said working at ARL is truly a great fit for her, allowing her to continue working on projects that will make a difference, ultimately making her more passionate about her research every day.

"I really appreciate the fact that my research has a purpose and that I am working to produce something that will be of use for the U.S. Army," Edwards said. "I find it very rewarding to have the opportunity to conduct research to comprehend the science behind materials' behavior and properties, knowing that this work has a direct application that will be put to use for the advancement of the U.S. Army's mission."

In addition, Edwards noted she likes working with other scientists and engineers as part of a team at ARL. "The people with whom I have had the opportunity to interact with at ARL are all very friendly and more than willing to help with any research related questions or concerns I may have," Edwards said.

When it comes to the inspiration behind her career, Edwards said it resides in the novel research she gets to conduct, which is different than anything she has done before.

"I am inspired and motivated by the fact that I am doing something totally new and different than what I did in my previous research as an undergraduate or graduate student," Edwards said. "Prior to coming to ARL, I had minimal experience working with polymers. Now, I work on a team and conduct research that utilizes knowledge and understanding of polymer physics, as well as polymer processing and material characterization using a wide range of techniques."

As a result, Edwards is constantly learning a new field with its associated concepts and techniques, of which she had very little prior experience, which keeps her curious and her work interesting.

Short term, Edwards's career goals include diversifying her skill set and continuing to grow as a research scientist while making a meaningful contribution to the advancement of the U.S. Army's mission.

"While I am a postdoctoral research fellow with ARL, I hope to learn as much as possible about polymer physics, polymer processing, and polymer materials characterization," Edwards said.

Long term, Edwards's career goals include remaining a research scientist with ARL or another federal organization or in industry.

It is her objective to spend her career learning new fields and skills, as well as gain new experiences.

If there is one piece of advice Edwards could offer younger generations who are interested in a career in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, it would be this: "For those who are interested in a career in STEM, I would advise finding a mentor or mentors. This has made all the difference for me. Frankly, the path to obtaining a career in STEM is not easy. In college, you are going to be in challenging classes that require you to put in long hours and work hard. As a scientist, engineer, or mathematician, you are going to be faced with unanswered and perplexing problems which are your job to solve."

Edwards noted that often, the types of students who are interested in STEM careers are driven individuals who are accustomed to being at the top of their high-school classes. Then, when they get to college and in their STEM classes, they are surrounded by other students who are just as motivated and intelligent as they are.

"It can be intimidating and overwhelming, to say the least," Edwards said. "That is why it is so important to find at least one person who has already been down a similar path to mentor, support and encourage you. This person can help you to keep things in perspective, serve as a reference and provide career path advice. For me, this person was and still is my undergraduate advisor."

Outside ARL, Edwards is a yoga instructor through the Cecil County YMCA, where she teaches Gentle Yoga classes for beginners and senior citizens and Vinyasa Flow classes for those with yoga experience.

Edwards will be offering the first-ever outdoor yoga classes at Rodgers Tavern in Perryville, overlooking the Susquehanna River, this summer from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

You can also find Edwards on stage in Cecil and Harford counties through community theatre. She will next appear in the Phoenix Festival Theatre's production of "Mary Poppins" this June at Harford Community College.

For information on ARL's Postdoctoral Research Programs, visit

The U.S. Army Research Laboratory is the nation's premier laboratory for land forces and is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM), which has the mission to develop technology and engineering solutions for America's Soldiers. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command. AMC is the Army's premier provider of materiel readiness. If a Soldier shoots it, drives it, flies it, wears it, eats it, or communicates with it, AMC delivers it.

For more information, visit, follow @ArmyResearchLab on Twitter and follow the lab on Facebook at


Last Update / Reviewed: May 2, 2016