Paul McEuen on nanoscience and bridging disciplines

Paul McEuen, the John A. Newman Professor of Physical Science and director of the Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science, is heading Provost Michael Kotlikoff’s new faculty hiring initiative task force on nanoscale science and microsystems engineering (with co-chair Professor David Muller). He spoke to the Chronicle about pushing nanoscience at Cornell to the next level, the challenge of recruiting midcareer faculty who bridge disciplines, “radical collaboration,” and the importance of asking, “What if?”

McEuen and Alda
Cornell Marketing Group file photo
Paul McEuen, director of the Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science, chats with actor, director and writer Alan Alda on campus in 2013.

How did this task force on nanoscience come to be?

It started with a vision, and a crisis.

First, the vision: one of a future where we make tiny machines as easily as we now make miniaturized electronics. The last 50 years belonged to the electronics revolution, where research on small electronic devices brought us the information technologies that are so important today. The next 50 years will bring a similar revolution in what you might call miniaturized robotics. And these small machines will be used for everything from medicine to environmental monitoring, from injectable surgical machines to fight cancer to environmental sensors small enough to fit inside a raindrop.

Now the crisis: Cornell has a long history as a world leader in nanoscience – arguably the world leader. But now other leading universities are trying to catch up, establishing programs and facilities with a nano focus. One way they do that is to hire faculty away from successful programs. That is happening to Cornell – we had some high-profile losses in nanoscience in the last couple of years.

These losses reminded us that we always need to be upping our game, to make an aggressive push to keep Cornell at the forefront of nanoscience. We decided that to take nano to the next level, we need to move beyond individual nanoscale objects and head toward nanosystems – assemblies of elements that perform a specific function. To make the vision of ubiquitous and powerful small machines a reality.

We interpret the term “nanomachines” very broadly – it could be biological, electronic, you name it … anything that’s small. This initiative is an opportunity to do targeted hiring in next-gen nano that integrates chemistry, engineering, materials science and physics. Our goal is to hire early to midcareer faculty: young, recently tenured senior faculty who are at the top of their game, who have a strong sense of where they’re going and want to team up to create this future. Such people are typically accomplished in multiple areas and would have a joint appointment between two departments, or at the very least could have a strong involvement in multiple departments or colleges. This integration will benefit the entire campus, not just an individual department.

We have a batch of outstanding candidates coming through now, and we hope to make a series of offers over the next few months and have a fantastic cadre of hires going into the next academic year.

What are some recent notable outcomes from Cornell nanoscale science research?

There are dozens of recent high-profile papers in nanoscience from Cornell. David Muller, my co-leader on this initiative, made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for creating the thinnest pane of glass, barely 3 atoms thick. Dan Ralph and Bob Buhrman have pioneered a new kind of magnetic memory that is finding its way into applications. Jan Lammerding, another member of our committee, found that cancer cells can damage their nucleus when squeezing through tiny microfabricated passageways. A number of us have gotten interested in creating the world’s smallest foldable structures. It sounds fanciful, but origami and kirigami (a variation of origami) can be very powerful manufacturing technologies. It’s a way of taking a two-dimensional sheet and folding it into the third dimension to create structures. At the moment, we’re driven by curiosity – can we make these things? – but the applications will follow.

In environmental monitoring, if we could make one of these structures, put a bunch of electronic circuitry on it, have it fold up into a tight little package, go inside a raindrop, fly somewhere, land, dry out and then start recording, that would be really fantastic. Can we make a “Fitbit for cells”? By that I mean electronic devices that are soft and compliant enough to go up to a cell and record information from it, without killing it?

Cornell excels at creating teams and facilities to take on these kind of big questions in nano. Next year, for example, the Cornell NanoScale Science and Technology Facility will celebrate its 40th anniversary – we were nano before nano was cool. Cornell scientists have received funding for three new major centers in the last six months alone: the NSF-funded PARADIM, whose mission is to create new complex materials with atomic precision; the NCI-funded Center for the Physics of Cancer Metabolism, to understand and defeat cancer; and the NSF-funded Center for Bright Beams, to create new tools for imaging at the nanoscale. These interdisciplinary centers, totaling over $50 million in federal funding, show that Cornell is the right place for the provost’s theme of “radical collaboration.”

What will it take for this faculty hiring initiative, and the others the provost has rolled out, to be successful?

In senior hiring, you have to be willing to fail. You must make a lot of offers to get a few acceptances – these are the best people in the world, and they’ve got lots of options, so most offers are going to be turned down. The provost and the university must be willing to, as they say in Silicon Valley, “fail often.”

The funding provided by the provost – as well as overall leadership, guidance, cajoling, etc. – will help make this kind of aggressive recruiting possible. And this is essential. To attract the kind of world-leading collaborative, interdisciplinary faculty we are looking for, ones who will benefit not just their home departments, but the larger Cornell community, we must show universitywide vision and commitment. The best faculty want to be a part of something big. So success means being proactive, risk-taking and bold. And the provost is leading the way.

Provost Kotlikoff has lauded you as a creative thinker who has excelled in your field and in training outstanding scientists. Can you describe your multidisciplinary approach?

You have to be willing to adapt and change and be comfortable in an environment where you don’t quite know all that’s going on – but you know you can make something exciting happen. Since I came to Cornell in 2001 (a midcareer hire!), our group has made the world’s thinnest drum out of a single-atom-thick graphene sheet; we’ve made the world’s smallest guitar out of a single carbon nanotube; we’ve started to use 1-atom-thick sheets to do kirigami with graphene sheets. We’re very interested in taking these materials places they haven’t been.

We try to be both focused and broad. First, you need something that is your specialty – something that defines you. If you go to my website, it says, “Anything, as long as it’s small.” That gives my group its focus – nano. But we’ll go anywhere with it – electronics, mechanical devices, sensors; we’ll study basic physics, or we’ll make devices. We’re driven primarily by a scientific and fundamental curiosity about how to play in this nanoscale world and not by a particular application or narrow notion about what these systems are good for. You can miss opportunities if you focus too soon. That said, we firmly believe that the work we do will be the bedrock of useful technologies in the future.

The students get trained very broadly. The research combines bits of chemistry, physics, materials science, engineering, you name it. And they have to chart their own path through this complex landscape, collaborating with chemists, materials scientists, biologists – the entire science and technology spectrum. And I’m very proud that my grad students and postdocs have done very well – over 20 are now professors at elite universities in departments ranging from chemistry to physics to mechanical engineering. One is even a patent law professor at Stanford. I think a part of their success is because, even as students or postdocs, they were trying to define their own objectives rather than me defining them. That freedom allowed them, when they became faculty, to choose great problems themselves.

You also are a novelist. Is a broad background and approach becoming a requirement today for any successful researcher?

Science is a great big puzzle. Over the past century, we were in an era of reductionist science. Everybody found their own little piece of the puzzle, and they learned more and more about it until they knew everything about the shape and form of their little piece. But the job of the future is to assemble those pieces into more and larger, more complex structures – of knowledge, of machines, of systems. It’s a totally different game.

How do you put those pieces together in an interesting way? How do you understand something as “simple” as a bacterium? Or as complex as a human brain? The science of the future is one part biology, one part chemistry, one part soft-matter physics, one part information technology and one part ecology. It’s a big and interesting challenge, and an organizational challenge, as well. We need to rethink how we organize the scientific enterprise. Cornell, as a research university, faces this challenge: How do we remain flexible, adaptive and relevant in a time when the boundaries of science/technology – and its role in the world – are changing so rapidly?

So being a writer is a great help. You have to create your own story. You have to say, “What if …?” and then see the question through.

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