Joanna Aizenberg's muse is the whole of the natural world. The Harvard University materials scientist takes her inspiration from creatures that suggest engineering of substances in unexpected ways. Ocean creatures in particular have proved inspirational. The brittle star, a relative of the starfish and the sea urchin, has a shell coated with lenses, which may furnish ideas for new types of optical communication systems. There is also the deep-sea sponge with a crown composed of optical fibers.

Aizenberg's early life in Russia and her brilliant, creative career as an engineer that followed at Harvard the Massachusetts Institute of Technology  are the focus of a question-and-answer feature in the February 2012 Scientific American.

Her laboratory has mustered a basic understanding of the physics of water to design a finely structured polymer coating that resists every attempt to accrete a layer of ice at temperatures as low as 30 degrees Celsius. The material, or some analogue thereof, might one day find its way into aircraft, power-transmission towers and building roofs.

Watch this incredible video of a droplet of water pinging off Aizenberg's no-icing, super-hydrophobic surface. For comparison, the video starts with two other surfaces—one hydrophilic and the other merely hydrophobic.