ASU faculty who inspire: Jeff Yarger

March 07, 2023 · 4 min read · By ASU Online
Arizona State University professor Jeff Yarger discusses his journey to becoming an experimental scientist, his unique research on creating sustainably sourced silk using spider polymers and how working with ASU Online has globalized laboratory education and training.
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“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

While most children fantasized about becoming firefighters and teachers, Jeff Yarger dreamt of being a scientist.

Watching his father be the first person in his family to graduate from college and growing up in a technology-forward household ignited Yarger’s curiosity for higher education and STEM studies. With this apparent gravitation toward science and technology, his parents gave him early access to a computer and pushed him to take on extracurricular activities.

“My parents encouraged me to pursue things I wanted to do,” Yarger said. “This quickly led to me finding science laboratories and helped quench that urge of curiosity I had toward things where you could not only ask questions, but you could test them directly with your hands experimentally in a lab.”

ASU professor Jeff Yarger discusses his unique research on polymers from spiders to creating sustainably sourced silk and how connecting science with ASU Online students has globalized laboratory education and training.

Finding his home at ASU

Yarger’s confidence in a scientific career pushed him to seek out extra laboratories to work in while attending his undergraduate program in chemistry and physics. During this time, his passion for the science lab and integration of different scientific fields grew. Upon graduating, Yarger continued his research in chemistry labs before beginning his PhD program in physical chemistry at ASU.

“When I came to visit, it was really obvious that ASU was doing something fairly unique,” Yarger said. “ASU was really emphasizing interdisciplinary research, breaking down the barriers of traditional areas in science and technology and reimagining these disciplines in real world applications and ways that interconnect them.”

After completing his PhD, Yarger developed his own independent laboratory and continued his research in California and Wyoming.

“I was fortunate enough in 2005 to have the opportunity to come back to ASU as they were further solidifying their interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research by developing interdisciplinary science and technology buildings,” Yarger explained. “I had the fortune to be able to come in and help design and direct some of the new directions that ASU is undertaking.”

 

One spider at a time

Today, Yarger teaches courses in physics, chemistry and biology and holds a joint appointment in the School of Molecular Sciences and the Department of Physics at ASU. Additionally, he’s the founding and current director of the Magnetic Resonance Research Center (MRRC), specializing in the characterization and structure determination of proteins, DNA, biomolecules, chemical compounds and solid materials by nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR).

Yarger also continues his research at ASU with a particular project that may give arachnophobes a chill down their spine. Inspired by biomimicry or naturally-occurring resources, Yarger studies spider polymers.

“Polymers are a huge area in chemistry and materials that we use everyday,” Yarger said. “I was fascinated when I first discovered that spiders are like polymer factories.”

Silk is one of the oldest and most valuable fabrics in the world. However, the production of silk requires a lot of energy, as silk farms must be kept at controlled temperatures and use an abundance of water. To combat the global environmental crisis, Yarger is working with spider polymers to create a sustainably sourced, synthetic silk.

“For being such an interesting material, it's not like you see spider silk being used every day,” Yarger explained. “It seems like Marvel comics has that one under wraps, but why is that? It's because we don't really understand how spiders do what they do. Within milliseconds they're able to pull out fibers out of an aqueous solution that have some of the highest toughnesses of any polymer we've ever observed in nature or been able to synthetically produce.”

With the hope of improving the planet, Yarger aims to expand on this new study of biomimicry and explore the power and reach of sustainably sourced polymers, one spider at a time.

 

Never give up on “why”

As Yarger continues his research and teaching, he commends ASU Online for the globalization of scientific studies and the connection of diverse groups of individuals.

“The most gratifying thing I find about working with online students is the diversity,” Yarger said. “As an online developer instructor, this allows me to be a much better educator by having this much greater pool of diversity in my courses than one would often get in a geographically constrained university’s in person labs and courses.”

Since childhood, Yarger’s passion for understanding “why” has influenced his now extensive career in scientific studies. For those interested in a career in the sciences of research, Yarger urges students to follow your curiosities and never give up on the question “why”.

“I think we're all born scientists, we're all born creative. As children, we naturally gravitate to asking ‘how is that?’ and ‘why is that?’,” Yarger said. “If you maintain that curiosity and continue to ask deeper questions about how and why and be persistent and not give up on that, you'll wake up one day and realize you are a scientist.”

Gain hands-on research experience through ASU Online’s OURS program

The OURS program was created to provide hands-on research experiences to online students interested in careers in the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities.

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