In the blitz of North Campus, Ryan Hall would hardly stand out if it weren’t for the picture of Nobel Prize winner Sir Fraser Stoddart pasted onto the front door. Inside this tan building, between the endless rows of windows, Northwestern is leading the way in nanoscience – the study of the miniscule.
One of the many scientists involved in the charge is Chad Mirkin, who directs the International Institute of Nanotechnology (IIN), a collaboration between some 240 experts with backgrounds from biology and engineering to physics and business. Despite the frenetic activity of his lab, Mirkin is surprisingly relaxed: he’s wearing a Blackhawks quarter-zip and jokes between questions about his desire to gamble in Las Vegas.
Today, Mirkin is showing me a nanoscale printer, a project he’s been working on since 1999, the year before he founded the IIN. It’s made up of thousands of tiny pens working in unison, so miniature that Mirkin keeps a macroscopic model of it on his coffee table. But calling them pens is a mistake. They’re actually atomic force microscopes – AFMs for short –and they work on any surface, not just paper. This is all happening on the nanoscale, too, making the AFM the world’s smallest writing instrument. When they work in unison, like in Mirkin’s 3D printer, they can even create tiny circuits for electronics. Mirkin says his invention will have applications in any sector, from medicine to optics.
Behind his nanoscale printer are shelves of awards, plaques and other accolades. But his work, whether in nanolithography or developing microtools to treat conditions like brain cancer, is about more than recognition. “I want to do everything I possibly can to not just make chemistry great, but to make the whole University great,” Mirkin says. “I bleed purple.”
When most students mention the Northwestern chemistry department, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t Mirkin’s nanolithography, but Lyrica, a drug developed by Dr. Richard Silverman to treat a number of conditions, including fibromyalgia, epilepsy and seizures. Today, Lyrica is in the NU legendarium less for its medical significance than the incredible amount of money Pfizer, the company that markets and manufactures the drug, brings to campus. Today, Lyrica profits account for 18 percent of the University’s endowment. That money has allowed Northwestern to make some serious investments in new building staff and technology, but it’s not the whole story.
To get that, you have to go back to 1989, when Silverman was nearing the end of his 15-year study on chemicals in the brain and was in the process of creating the billion-dollar drug. Mirkin and Henry Bienen, the former president of Northwestern, took a risk: beginning construction on the IIN. At that point, few universities were interested in nanotechnology, but in 2000, the Clinton administration launched the $497 million National Nanotechnology Initiative, which brought significant attention to the field. The announcement coincided with the completion of the IIN, at a point when Mirkin and the Institute’s original faculty were just coming to terms with the idea that they had something truly special on their hands.
“Northwestern almost came out of the blue and it was significant investment from the administration and spectacular talent here that enabled that to happen,” says Teri Odom, an associate chair of the chemistry department, who joined Northwestern in 1999, the same year the IIN launched. “We weren’t the first ones to come up with the term ‘nanoscience,’ but we were some of the first ones to do something with it.”
Northwestern had established the first institute of its kind in the U.S. – and Clinton’s initiative was only the beginning. Odom says the school started getting federal funds from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, a signal that there would be longer-term support for the IIN’s nanoscience and engineering research.
While the scope of support certainly surprised everyone, Mirkin had been looking for a breakthrough like this since joining NU. He says the University had trailed behind other elite schools like Stanford, Princeton and MIT because they had a late start.
“You can’t reset time – you can’t be first in chemistry and in physics and biology and the established disciplines,” he says. “But you can be first in a field like nanotechnology.”
Dr. Samuel Stupp serves as the Director of the Simpson Querrey Institute for BioNanotechnology (SQI), established in 2000 with the goal of combining nanoscience and medicine. He agrees that timing was crucial to elevating Northwestern’s status – if Mirkin hadn’t convinced Bienen to create the IIN when he did, the University would likely have missed its chance to take a leading role in nanotech. “The best approach to be a leader in a specific area of scientific research is to be the first one to initiate it and that was very much the case for Northwestern.” Stupp says. “We were pioneers in that regard – we took a specific interest in the field and the department of chemistry was instrumental in this.”
The irony is that nanoscience isn’t really a novel idea, but a synthesis of many fields of study, including material science, chemistry, medicine and biomedical engineering. And Northwestern was hardly the only university to have strong programs in all these areas, even if it was the first to take a specific interest. It was actually the marketing of the IIN that carried the day.
“Nanotechnology is sort of a strange subject because it just means chemistry. All chemistry is nanotechnology – molecules are on the nanoscale,” says Dr. Emily Weiss, a professor of chemisty. “It’s a funny rebranding, but it is a rebranding that has worked.”
There’s a floor to ceiling window on the east wall of Odom’s office in Ryan Hall. The glass faces a courtyard, and when the sun streams in at just the right angle, the whole room lights up. Bathed in sunlight are not just plaques and trophies, but pieces of art – abstract paintings, photographs of flowers and an ornate orange frog – that make the space feel less technical and more free-spirited.
Odom is petite, with a short pixie cut to match her height. Northwestern hired her when she was still a graduate student, which is practically unheard of; the normal route to almost becoming a professor is from Ph.D. to postdoctoral training and then to interviewing for positions at universities. It’s an impressive feat for anyone, but especially for a woman working in a department that has been historically male-dominated. When she joined, she was just the second woman at the IIN.
“The way that we’ve been trained up, even starting with high school, there were never really many women in the class so it was normal,” Odom says. “When you go to college, it’s still normal that you’re just a minority part of the population in class.”
But Odom changed, even if it was marginal, what counted as “normal” within Northwestern’s chemistry department and the IIN by becoming the first woman to climb the ranks from assistant to associate to full professor. Now, 18 years after joining Northwestern, the dynamics of hiring are changing for the better. “The good news is we’ve made some systematic changes so that we’re able to hire more and diversify the faculty … You can always recruit, but I think it’s always better when your own people that you hire and train up from the very beginning are successful.”
In many ways, Odom’s personal success mirrors the achievements of Northwestern in nanoscience. Since 2000, the IIN has done more than establish itself as a premier nanotechnology center. The work that Northwestern has accomplished in the field has spurred the creation of 21 start-up companies, measuring over $700 million in venture capital funding and more than 2,000 associated nanotech patents. Northwestern’s chemistry department is now ranked as one of the best chemistry programs in the world, largely due to the IIN’s achievements.
The department has attracted esteemed faculty from around the country: Sir Fraser Stoddart, who won the Nobel Prize in 2016 for his creation of molecular machines, came to Northwestern in 2007 because of IIN’s history of success. Profits from Lyrica allowed Northwestern to afford Stoddart, and the collaborative approach among professors working at the forefront of scientific discovery sealed the deal.
With its list of star-studded faculty, one of the things that makes Northwestern so prosperous are these connections. From chemistry fundamentals to an understanding of engineering and physics, Odom says the IIN’s projects rely on a combination of knowledge and unique skill sets. Therefore, almost all of the projects coming out of the IIN involve experts from across a variety of disciplines.
This research method, emphasizing teamwork and partnerships, is central to the department’s ethos and continues to set Northwestern apart from its peer institutions. “Harvard has what I would call a silo mentality where the faculty don’t talk to each other,” Odom says. “Similarly, at Stanford, there was one woman faculty member in chemistry, and I figured, ‘Why would I want to go into an occupation that’s hostile?’”
In short, the science matters, but so do the people, and that’s what can make the difference between a good chemistry department and a great one.”
As for questions about the future, Mirkin has a knack for bringing things back to his tagline: “Everything old becomes new when miniaturized.” The six-word phrase is fitting considering how his work and that of the IIN has had an impact across the entire state of Illinois. The state has become a hotspot for the study of matter and molecules, ranking fourth in the U.S. for its chemistry research output.
There are no signs of progress slowing down, either. Mirkin, along with Chinese Academy of Sciences Professor Lei Jiang, will receive the 2018 Nano Research Award later this year. The award recognizes his advances in nanolithography along with his research focused on producing and restructuring DNA into spherical nucleic acids. This research has been going on since 1996, when Mirkin and his team discovered that attaching nanoparticles, like that of gold, to strands of DNA can alter its behavior. The DNA changes from the traditional double helix to a new, spherical shape.
New shapes may sound fun, but what’s really exciting is what they can do. These spherical nucleic acids – what Mirkin calls “velcro balls” because of their adhesiveness – can act as spies in the human body. Normally, cells reject any type of foreign DNA, which includes the manufactured DNA that researchers are trying to use to treat and cure diseases. But these velcro balls aren’t seen as foreign, allowing them to form the cellular secret forces and infiltrate the body’s cells. The manipulations that can be made on the cellular level lead to improvements in treatments for skin disorders, and bowel and bladder cancers.
“We now have multiple drugs in clinical trials being tested on humans, so we are about four or five years from launching the first drugs based upon spherical nucleic acids,” Mirkin says, meaning that new success could be bringing in money to the University within the next decade.
Mirkin is not the only researcher making strides in the field of nanoscience. Odom and her research group manipulate the shape and lengths of various structures that arrange in a hierarchy. These three-dimensional, multi-scale structures can exist as different sizes at the same time. Think of it like a set of Russian nesting dolls – they are all the same structure, but they grow in size with each level, creating a hierarchy of sorts.
Despite growth in the past two decades and the achievements in nanoscience, the University is still an underdog in some respects. But just as the journey in nanoscience began with a choice of branding, increasing Northwestern’s reputation is all a matter of perspective.
“We need to pay close attention to the way we present ourselves on the outside,” Stupp says. “Our research here is as good as the research that’s done at Harvard and Stanford. We just have to work at that branding and perception issue.”
Mirkin, on the other hand, already sees that transformation in reputation. “I always tell people that your degree today is worth a lot more than it was 25 years ago. This place is tougher to get into and it’s got a brand known now around the world,” he says. “I just came from Saudi Arabia last week and the head of a big institute over there, Jean Fréchet, said, ‘You know, I think Northwestern chemistry has now risen to the top.’”
Either way, there is always room to expand reputation – and there’s time to do so, because nanoscience isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. “Different subfields come and go; different fads kick into fashion and then are passed over. But that won’t happen with nanotech because it can impact almost everything that we do,” Mirkin says. “Anywhere that we need new materials, new structures, nanotech is gonna play a role.”
In the nanoscale, all that is old becomes new – and the story of Northwestern’s chemistry department is not just about Lyrica, or Mirkin and Odom and Stupp. It’s just beginning, with the stroke of a nanoscale quill pen and the work of countless people working together. “There is no individual that is really the main driver of anything that goes on here,” Mirkin says. “You get really talented students, postdocs, faculty; put them in an environment where they’ve got the resources, and the sky’s the limit.”