Bacteria cells respond to the presence surfaces: Gene expression is different for bacteria free in solution versus on surfaces. Adhesion to surfaces triggers bacterial cells to up-regulate virulence factors, and initiate biofilm formation and infections. We strive to understand how bacteria sense a surface environment, focusing on processes that occur before a surface becomes crowded with cells. We rely directly on contact, deformation, and chemical-mechanical signal transduction. This collaborative program, bridging materials physics, microbiology, and engineering, examines the nature of bacteria-surface contact on surfaces of well-characterized chemistry, mechanics, and timescales, treating bacteria as living materials.