Mark Hersam Named MacArthur Fellow

Dedicated teacher and versatile researcher pushes materials and minds forward

Materials Scientist Mark Hersam, 2014 MacArthur Fellow

Mark C. Hersam, a Northwestern University materials engineer who teaches the innovators of tomorrow and works across scientific boundaries to create new materials for use in electronics, solar cells and batteries, has been named a 2014 MacArthur Fellow, an honor bestowed with a $625,000 “no conditions” award.

A versatile and highly productive experimentalist, Hersam is developing novel nanomaterials for use in information technology, biotechnology, energy, such as solar cells and batteries, and flexible electronics for personalized health monitoring -- the kind that can be integrated into clothing, not just strapped on your wrist.

The phone call from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation delivering the very good news was so out of the blue that Hersam initially thought it was a joke.

Mark Hersam“Then I went into shock, and, I think, to some extent I remain in shock,” said Hersam, who received the call in his Cook Hall office. “As time has gone on, I’ve appreciated, of course, that it’s a great honor and, more importantly, a great opportunity.”

A dedicated and popular teacher, Hersam is the Bette and Neison Harris Chair in Teaching Excellence and professor of materials science and engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.

“There are very few awards that provide unrestricted resources, and this one does. No strings attached,” he said. “That’s a great opportunity for a researcher -- to have that level of freedom.”

Hersam is one of the new MacArthur Fellows recognized today (Sept. 17) by the MacArthur Foundation for “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.”

“I am very grateful and thankful to the MacArthur Foundation, to current and previous members of my research group and to my colleagues and collaborators over the years,” Hersam said. “Scientific research is a team effort.”

Hersam views his principal job as that of an educator -- a role in which he can have more impact on unsolved problems by harnessing the minds of hundreds of young scientists and engineers.

“I love to teach in the classroom, but I also believe that scientific research is a vehicle for teaching,” Hersam said. “Research exposes students to difficult unsolved problems, forcing them to be creative. I want them to come up with truly new ideas, not just regurgitate established concepts.”

Hersam, who joined Northwestern in 2000, also is professor of chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, professor of medicine at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and director of Northwestern’s Materials Research Center.

Taking an interdisciplinary approach that draws on techniques from materials science, physics, engineering and chemistry, Hersam has established himself as a leading experimentalist in the area of hybrid organic-inorganic materials, with a focus on the study of the electrical and optical properties of carbon and related nanomaterials.

Hersam and his research lab have been working primarily with carbon nanotubes and graphene, but the support of the MacArthur award will allow the lab to diversify its materials set to other elements in the periodic table.

Earlier this year Hersam testified before U.S. Congress to push for “coordinated, predictable and sustained federal funding” for nanotechnology research and development.

Hersam’s numerous awards have included the Beckman Young Investigator Award, the National Science Foundation CAREER Award, a Sloan Research Fellowship, the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) and six Teacher of the Year Awards.

Other recent MacArthur Fellowship recipients at Northwestern include: Mary Zimmerman in 1998; Amy Rosenzweig in 2003; Aleksandar Hemon in 2004; Jennifer Richeson in 2006; Stuart Dybek in 2007; and Dylan Penningroth in 2012.