Pioneering nanophotonics researcher elected to second national academy
Rice University Professor Naomi Halas today joined the elite rank of scientists who have been elected to both the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Academy of Engineering (NAE). Halas is one of 67 new NAE members announced today and was elected to the NAS in 2013.
Less than 5 percent of NAS and NAE members have dual membership, and Halas is one of 12 women ever chosen for the dual honor. Election to these academies is one of the highest honors that can be conferred upon a U.S. scientist or engineer.
Halas is Rice’s Stanley C. Moore Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering and a professor of biomedical engineering, chemistry, and physics and astronomy. She also is the founding director of Rice’s Laboratory for Nanophotonics and director of the Rice Quantum Institute. She is the first person in the university’s history to be elected to both the NAS and NAE for research done at Rice.
The national academies — private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology and health policy advice under a congressional charter — date to the formation of the NAS in 1863. Today, the academies include the NAS, NAE, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council.
“Election to a national academy is an honor bestowed by one’s peers in the academy, and the fact that Naomi has earned the rare distinction of being elected to both the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Science is a testament to her sustained, long-standing and fundamental contributions to cross-disciplinary science,” said Ned Thomas, the William and Stephanie Sick Dean of Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering and professor in materials science and nanoengineering and in chemical and biomolecular engineering. “Rice is doubly honored because the contributions were all made right here over the course of her remarkable Rice career.”
Halas’ research crosses boundaries of applied physics, chemistry, electrical engineering, medicine and optics. She joined Rice in the first wave of researchers recruited by the late Richard Smalley to explore the frontiers of nanotechnology. Halas, who had trained at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center and at Bell Laboratories, was uniquely positioned for nanoscience because of her training in both chemistry and physics.
Halas said Rice’s small size was attractive, largely because of the corresponding culture of interdepartmental collaboration made possible by the campus’s various institutes.
“When I interviewed at Rice, they took me to lunch at a meeting of the Rice Quantum Institute,” Halas said. “You had all these professors from different disciplines and departments talking about their work, and it really reminded me of the lunch table at Bell Labs, where you had Nobel laureates sitting with postdocs sharing ideas and talking about how to work together.
“Rick Smalley was fond of saying that you could do really great science anywhere, and I had seen the great science that came out of small places like IBM Zurich and at Bryn Mawr, where I got my Ph.D.,” Halas said. “I recognized pretty early on that Rice’s institutes could bring people together in a special way.”
She rapidly rose through Rice’s academic ranks, but it was her invention of gold nanoshells in the mid-1990s that first drew international attention. Halas’ nanoshells were among the first optically tunable nanoparticles, and the discovery established her as a pioneer in nanophotonics, a then-nascent field dedicated to the exploration of nano-optics.
Nanoshells have a solid nonconducting core, typically made from silica. Encasing this core is a thin shell of conductive metal, often gold or silver. The metal shell interacts with light, but only of a specific wavelength. By varying the thickness of the metal shell, Halas showed she could tune her nanoshells to selectively interact with many different colors of light as well as some wavelengths outside the visible spectrum.
About 15 years ago, Halas and Rice bioengineering researcher Jennifer West hit upon the idea of using nanoshells to treat cancer. The treatment derives from the ability of nanoshells to convert light into heat. By tuning the nanoshells to interact with near-infrared light — an invisible wavelength that shines through skin and muscle — Halas and West demonstrated they could use nanoshells to destroy cancer with heat. The method, which avoids the detrimental side effects often associated with chemotherapy, is now in clinical trials.
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In their most recent work, Halas and Nordlander created a revolutionary new technology in 2012 that uses nanoparticles to convert solar energy directly into steam. The new “solar steam” method is so effective it can even produce steam from ice-cold water. Halas is working to develop the technology for sanitation and water-purification applications in the developing world.
Halas said she finds research just as exciting today as when she began her career.
“There is nothing like it,” she said. “I think most people believe that because scientists are objective and methodical that they aren’t passionate. That couldn’t be further from the truth. What we do is a creative and human endeavor that’s every bit as exciting as artistic creation. Science engenders great passion. It’s what gets us here early in the morning and keeps us here late at night.”
Halas’s scientific accomplishments have led to numerous honors, including election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Halas is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Materials Research Society, the Optical Society, the American Physical Society, the International Society for Optical Engineering and the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
Halas has a B.A. in chemistry from La Salle College and an M.A. and a Ph.D. in physics from Bryn Mawr College.
She joins Rice Bioengineering Professor Antonios Mikos as the only other member of Rice’s faculty with dual academy membership. Mikos, who also spent his entire academic career at Rice, was elected to both the NAE and the Institute of Medicine in 2012.
In Rice’s 102-year history, only two previous faculty members — former provosts William Gordon and David Auston — were dual members of the NAS and NAE. Both Gordon and Auston were elected to the academies for research accomplishments that predated their Rice tenure.
Rice alumnus George Pharr IV ’75, who served on Rice’s faculty from 1980-1998, was also elected to the NAE today. Pharr is Chancellor’s Professor and the McKamey Professor of Engineering at the University of Tennessee and at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.