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Harold Craighead sits next to his wife, Teresa, as former students share stories during a symposium honoring his career June 1 in the Physical Sciences Building.

Symposium honors nanofabrication pioneer Harold Craighead

Nanoscale scientists and industry professionals gathered in Cornell’s Physical Sciences Building June 1 for a symposium to honor the career of nanofabrication pioneer Harold Craighead, Ph.D. ’80, the Charles W. Lake Professor of Engineering, who will become an emeritus professor July 1.

Craighead, who became a professor in the School of Applied and Engineering Physics in 1989, focused his research on micro- and nanofabrication and on finding biological applications for the unique microscopic nanostructures he was creating.

In 1997, he entered The Guinness Book of World Records after using electron-beam lithography to carve the world’s smallest guitar out of crystalline silicon. At 10 micrometers long, the instrument was as small as a human blood cell and demonstrated a new technique for fabricating at the nanoscale. Using similar techniques, Craighead began his most notable work in engineering a nanofluidic device that can separate, count and analyze individual DNA molecules.

Lois Pollack, director of the School of Applied and Engineering Physics, said Craighead’s work has been important to the field of biology, especially “what he’s done for single-molecule analysis, like DNA sequencing. His ideas, like working on a zero-mode waveguide, really started a brand new way of sequencing DNA and that’s had a huge impact.”

Harold Craighead, with graduate students Bojan Ilic and Yanou Yang, in his lab in 2004.

Craighead used the zero-mode waveguide technology – essentially a nanosized hole in metal film that enables scientists to examine individual DNA molecules – to co-found the company Nanofluidics, which eventually became Pacific Biosciences of California and is valued at more than $1 billion.

His lab also engineered devices that can detect single-cell bacteria and viruses, the accuracy of which was demonstrated when Craighead detected the mass of a single E-coli bacterium weighing just 6.3 attograms, an achievement that earned him a second spot in the record book, this time for lightest object weighed.

Craighead served as director of his school from 1998 to 2000, director of what is now the Cornell NanoScale Science and Technology Facility from 1989-95, and interim dean of the College of Engineering from 2001-02. Among other accolades, he is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Inventors.

Through it all, Craighead said it is the relationships he formed that he’ll remember most.

“The most rewarding part of my time at Cornell was the ability to interact with intelligent, bright, active young and older people,” Craighead said to symposium attendees, most of whom were former students. “So as I look back at my career, it’ll be interactions with all of you that really made it worthwhile.”

Christine Tan, Ph.D. ’11, was one of several former students invited to present at the symposium. She is the vice president of business development for the Fuzhou Internet of Things Open Lab in China, and said several lessons she learned from Craighead have been helpful throughout her career, including the lifelong curiosity he instilled in her.

“I learned even the simplest thing can be filled with signs and concepts and theories,” said Tan. “It’s very easy to make assumptions, especially about things we don’t know. The onus and responsibility is on us as scientists to really learn, keep an open mind, and really go and find out for ourselves.”

Jose Moran-Mirabal, Ph.D. ’07, associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, studied the interaction between liquid membranes and nanostructured materials as a member of Craighead’s research group.

“What I really appreciated from Harold is that he gave you all the freedom to do the stuff you found most interesting,” said Moran-Mirabal.

Current postdoctoral researcher Harvey Tian, Ph.D. ’17, agreed.

“It’s been a lot of freedom, but a lot of guidance at the same time. Harold sort of guides you in a way that still makes you feel like you can discover your own way as you go,” said Tian, who continues to build microfluidic devices to investigate cancer cells as the last remaining member of Craighead’s research group.

Craighead thanked the organizers and those in attendance, including his wife, Teresa, and his son, Daniel. While he won’t be teaching in his retirement, he plans to stay active and continue some of his work.

“I don’t look at this as the end of something,” Craighead said, “but sort of the change of how I operate at Cornell and elsewhere.”

Syl Kacapyr is public relations and content manager for the College of Engineering.

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Jeff Tyson