Thinking Small: Angela Belcher

IT scored a major coup in September 2002 when they attracted Dr. Angela Belcher away from UT Austin. Her approach to science is so exciting that senior executives at IBM told me privately that they wish they’d been able to court her first. Angela is a materials chemist with interdisciplinary expertise in inorganic chemistry, biochemistry, molecular biology and electrical engineering. Her area of specialty is biomimicry (see “Using Mother Nature’s Blueprint,” August 2002), reverse engineering the way Mother Nature makes materials like bones or shells. In her lab, Belcher is able to make viruses, proteins and other organic machinery to assemble inorganic materials like semiconducting nanoparticles into useful devices like LCDs, sensors and even memory chips. She’s modest about being called a pioneer, but is undoubtedly responsible for inspiring scores of other scientists to see the power of using biology to assemble electronic devices in exciting new ways. Angela is a fast rising star who exudes strong ethics, high-energy and contagious passion for her work. She was chosen in 2002 as one of 12 women at the forefront of chemistry in addition to over 15 other such accolades, awards or fellowships in the past five years.

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calcium carbonate. I thought, “Well nature hasn’t evolved the ability to control these other elements and materials, so let's do it ourselves!” Do you find your work hard to explain because it’s so unlike anything else? Yes. I first started talking about evolving organisms to grow semiconductors and other types of materials. I still feel like it’s difficult in some settings to explain the background of many different fields and how they can be integrated. I've had a lot of practice and all my formal training in a very cross-disciplinary science, between physics, chemistry and molecular biology. What impact could your work have scientifically? I think that one of the main things is learning how to work out rules for how biological materials can control the synthesis of inorganic materials. It’s a very important part of our work. Learning how they can control and what kinds of material they can control. Then we can make rational predictions with the data we already have to do new things. Learning how the interactions work and what the possibilities are. I think this can give new routes to developing materials. By controlling crystal orientation and phase, it gives you the possibility to give a more environmentally sensitive approach to materials. We are using non-toxic materials and taking a biological approach. How about its commercial impact? The commercial aspect is developing new routes to making materials and organizing them into multidimensional structures. I think it could lead to possibilities in the biotechnology end of things. With the thinfilms we are making, there are possibilities for stable storage of biological molecules for both proteins and DNA. This is still at the science stage, but could be used for drug delivery. We’re also interested in interfacing biological and inorganic materials. People come to me all the time with problems in this area. The key question is “How do you get biological materials to mix with inorganic materials?” We're trying to work out a detailed database where you put different material combinations of biological and inorganic, biological and biological inorganic and inorganic and work through to determine end products. Delivering contrast agents for medical imaging is another key area. There is also the possibility

of trying to make catalysts—that have all one crystal type or orientation—and control them with a biological mechanism. This would yield a higher quality material. Other people want us to present biological molecules on a surface where all the active sites are pointing in one direction so that you could get accurate measurements of the number of enzymes or enzyme activity in a single cell. This could be important for drug discovery. You could have theoretically bi-functional molecules where one end is biological end and the other is very specific for inorganic or magnetic materials. This way a small peptide unit can bind to an inorganic particle and also fit with a biological molecule. How far away is this kind of thing commercially? I'm looking longer term, not, say, the next three years. Some of the applications like sensors and biologically possible applications are shorter term than self-assembled electronics. If I had to predict, I'd say things that are the closest are more at the biological interface like drug discovery and delivery. Then maybe intermediate term it would be growing specific materials and catalysts and pigments and then longer-term it would be growing and self-assembling practical electronic materials. For Luddites and technophobes, your style of science could be a double whammy. You’re working not only with nanotechnology, but viruses also. How do you defend it to critics? I give a lot of public lectures to non-scientists and one of the things about viruses I use is that they are actually non-toxic to humans and don’t affect mammals. It’s very important to me as a scientist and we are very interested in green chemistry. Nature uses non-toxic precursors to create materials and doesn’t put a lot of toxic waste in the environment. We are trying to harness that to create materials in a non toxic way. I'm very protective of the people in my lab, and I don’t like using toxic materials as at all, not even radioactivity—it’s just not something I’m interested in. We work with bacteria that are totally harmless. They are on your desk and in the soil, these things that are completely non-toxic. I haven’t come across the people who are afraid of nanoparticles. ¤
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What kind of approach do you take with your research? I learn about as much as I can about different fields. It is a way to ask questions and approach problems that are next generation problems. Surprisingly, most of the grad school applications I get are not biologists, but instead range from computer science to molecular engineering. When I look at someone's application, I don’t care where they came from, but instead I ask “Are you willing to start from scratch and learn an entirely new approach?” It’s getting harder and harder for me to choose because more and more people want to learn from scratch. My lab is made up of physical chemists, biochemists, chemical engineers material scientists, physicists, computer scientists and molecular biologists. What was the inspiration for your work? I was standing on my desk, looking at the periodic table of elements and thinking about my previous work with abalone and proteins that controlled the formation of
© Copyright 2003 Forbes/Wolfe Nanotech Report