Skip to content

Trisha Andrew: Driven by Curiosity

“With the Fellowship, we bought a top-of-the-line sewing machine because we sew our own smart garments . . .”

Trisha in her office at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

“I think it’s important to talk about your own experience and your history not only as a recognition of your own self, but to tell other people, ‘This is who I am.’”

“When he told me, I jumped up out of my chair, and started jumping up and down like a little bunny, because that’s what I do when I’m really happy,” laughed Trisha Andrew, remembering the moment her boss told her over lunch that she’d been awarded the Packard Fellowship. Once she had returned to earth, literally and figuratively, Trisha put out a call to the students in her research lab and told them to start buying materials and equipment—their ambitions were about to get even bigger.

Driven by Curiosity

From an early age, Trisha has always pursued a career path fueled by curiosity. Growing up, she was so fascinated by the workings of the human brain that she spent time shadowing a neurologist. Later, while studying chemistry as an undergraduate at the University of Washington, she wanted to make something with her hands, so she decided to add engineering as a second major in her junior year. Then, as a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), she decided to hone her technical skills by becoming a “cook,” as she calls it, developing a library of experimental materials that could be used for everything from explosive detection to lithography to solar cells.

And when it came time to choose a post-doc program, Trisha once again followed her curious nature and chose to explore yet another new field of research—electronics—studying under Vladimir Bulović, an engineering professor at MIT, and growing into her current specialization in textile electronics.

“I’d like to think I absorbed some of his energy in terms of curiosity-driven research. He is the most ambitious thinker I know,” she says of Bulović.

Trisha became rapt with Bulović’s approach when she heard him lay out his work in a talk. He noted that about 80 percent of the cost of solar panels comes from the glass on which they are built and the labor needed to install that very heavy, very fragile material. What might change, he wondered, if a solar panel could be made through a different process, on lighter, more flexible materials?

Working in Bulović’s lab, Trisha drew on her background in chemistry and engineering to develop a process to bind solar cells to paper. When a colleague challenged her to replicate the process with a material more likely to sit in the sun – like curtains – she gladly accepted, thinking the process would be straightforward.

“That was hubris,” she now recalls.

It turns out that at the scale of nanometers, fabric is extremely bumpy, making it difficult to bind solar cells using known methods. But instead of giving up, Trisha’s curiosity was piqued, and she devoted her work to exploring new processes using textiles.

This was the line of research she was pursuing at the Chemistry Department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, when she learned that she had been awarded the Packard Fellowship. After her leaping celebratory reaction to the news, her next action item was to call her students, instructing them to buy the materials they’d need to explore new ways to bind electronics to fabrics—including a high-tech vacuum chamber and a very expensive sewing machine.

Equipment and equations at Trisha’s Wearable Electronics lab at UMass Amherst.

Today, Trisha’s work has expanded into a full Wearable Electronics Lab at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where Trisha works with kinesiologists, nurses, computer scientists, gerontologists, and other experts to explore how “smart” fabrics can be worn comfortably as pajamas that can monitor a person’s gait and “learn” about the person’s movements over time.

Trisha’s excitement about her work is infectious. Wesley Viola, one of her lab students, describes how wearable electronics could one day enable health monitoring for diseases like diabetes, changing the way people interact with and monitor themselves medically. “I think it’s really going to transform medicine,” he explains.

A First-Generation Chemist

In addition to thinking about herself as a curiosity-driven researcher, Trisha has given a lot of thought to other aspects of her life that make her who she is today, including the fact that she wasn’t born in the United States.

“For a time,” she explains, “the overarching narrative of my life was an immigrant family trying to scrape by.”

Born in Saudi Arabia and raised in India, Trisha and her family spent much of her childhood traveling for her father’s job. Her father, who had to support his entire family starting at the age of 15, was a project manager in computer science, while her mother, who grew up in an orphanage, worked as an accountant.

An industrial strength sewing machine Trisha purchased with her Packard Fellowship funds.

Eventually, the family landed in Washington state, where Trisha spent the formative years of her childhood. Although Trisha jokes about how her parents pressed her to become a doctor or a lawyer, she is also profoundly grateful for the way they lovingly urged and guided her to fulfill her potential.

“They pushed me and gave me the confidence,” she says, “I thank them.”

As she’s progressed through her career, Trisha explains that’s she’s developed a strong sense of self in her identity as an immigrant, and an even stronger sense of pride in being the daughter of immigrant parents.

“I just started recognizing that as part of my experience of ending up where I am,” she explains, “and I think it’s important to talk about your own experience and your history, not only as a recognition of your own self, but to tell other people, ‘This is who I am.’” At the same time, she admits that her candor and her strong sense of self-assurance are perhaps more than her parents might have bargained for. “My parents are mortified by me at some level,” she jokes. “They’re mortified.”

Trisha’s lab student Wesley Viola prepares for an experiment in the Wearable Electronics Lab.

Trisha, in turn, has worked to encourage other promising scientists from immigrant families. She’s created opportunities for undergraduate students from the nearby Springfield Technical Community College—where many immigrants and first-generation college students go to school—to study in her lab as interns. She’s also worked with her friend Susan Zultanski to create a symposium called First Generation Chemists, which she hopes will help create a sense of community among chemists who are both immigrants and first-generation academics.

Women Mentoring Women

Trisha has also given a lot of thought to what it means to be a woman in her field. “Women are taught, they are socialized from childhood—‘Don’t speak out of turn. Watch yourself. Pay respect to the other person who’s talking. Don’t talk over them,’” she explains. But because she believes scientists can be their own best advocates, Trisha tries to push back against her female students’ tendency toward self-effacement in her own mentoring approach.
“I would find that female students would apologize a lot more, and so for the past couple of years, every time I see that, I tell them not to apologize.”
Instead, Trisha has worked with her mentees to shape a communication style that is both confident and true to who they are. Rather than tell students to speak more loudly or be more aggressive, she helps them to be more effective in their natural style. Trisha, in turn, has been grateful for the many female mentors who have helped her along her own path. One of them, Kyoung-Shin Choi, started at the University of Wisconsin at the same time as Trisha. Recognizing that the department had very few women, the more senior Kyoung-Shin reached out to Trisha on the very first day.
Trisha in her lab. Behind her is a vacuum inside which she and her students create new processes for binding materials together
“She marched up to me, stuck out her hand, and said, ‘Hi. I’m Kyoung-Shin. We’re going to be best friends,’” says Trisha, laughing at her friend’s boldness.
“She taught me that you have to seek people out—not only as a mentee, but you have to seek people out as a mentor.”
Trisha also learned important lessons about taking the longview to building her career—and her life—from her formal mentor at the University of Wisconsin, Laura Kiessling. “She was a great person to talk to about longevity, to make me think about the future and what I’m trying to build,” says Trisha. Kiessling kept Trisha focused on her work, especially as the responsibilities of starting a lab began to weigh on her. But it was also Kiessling’s example of making time for her family that encouraged Trisha to think about her own parents. When they got sick, Trisha found the distance between her job in Wisconsin and her parents in Massachusetts to be especially taxing. “I watched Laura and how she prioritized the people that give her energy in her life—her family,” remembers Trisha. “And when the opportunity came up to move to Amherst, that’s basically why I made the decision to move when I did.” To this day, sitting in her office just a short drive from her parents, Trisha still recalls the advice her they have given her since childhood, even before she could speak.
Linden Allison conducts an experiment in Trisha’s Wearable Electronics Lab.
“’You’re going to do good in this world’” she recalls them telling her, “’You’re going to work hard. You’re going to have ethics. You’re going to be a good person. And we don’t care what it is, you have to always shoot higher.’”
At the time of her interview, as Trisha was preparing to speak at a meeting of the American Chemistry Society about her work creating “smart clothes” to help people live better lives, it would be hard to argue that she hasn’t fulfilled their charge, and even surpassed it, by leaps and bounds.

Research Summary

My team and I produce textile-based electronic devices that retain the comfort, breathability, and feel of everyday fabrics and garments. We develop vapor-phase coating chemistries to imperceptibly coat mass-produced threads and textiles or readily-available premade garments with a range of conjugated polymer materials. We then use traditional textile and garment manufacturing routines, such as weaving, knitting, and sewing, to create novel textile electronics using our coated fabrics and threads. The products coming out of our lab seamlessly integrate electronic function with wearability in a way that is unmatched by contemporaries. Some of our functional and wearable products include: thermoelectric garments that generate power from temperature differentials between the human body and ambient; textile triboelectric generators that convert small body motions into stored energy; wear-, wash- and ironing-resistant conductive cloths that generate heat with a small applied voltage; and polymer-coated nylon fiber supercapacitors that can be sewed or knitted into garments for wearable and portable energy storage.