Fall 2012 Magazine

The Data Age

McCormick News

Breaking the skin barrier, a new logic circuit family, McCormick in the media, and more


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Breaking the Skin Barrier

Chad Mirkin

Recent research by a team led by the McCormick School’s Chad Mirkin and a dermatologist from the Feinberg School of Medicine gives “getting under your skin” new meaning. The team is the first to demonstrate the use of commercial moisturizers to deliver gene-regulation technology potentially therapeutic for skin cancer.

The topical delivery of gene-regulation technology to cells deep in the skin is difficult because of the skin’s formidable defenses. The Northwestern approach takes advantage of nanostructures consisting of novel spherical arrangements of nucleic acids that have the unique ability to traverse the skin and enter cells. They were developed in the lab of Mirkin, director of Northwestern’s International Institute for Nanotechnology and George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, professor of medicine in the Feinberg School, and professor of chemical and biological engineering, biomedical engineering, and materials science and engineering in the McCormick School.

Nanostructures consisting of novel spherical arrangements of nucleic acids that have the unique ability to traverse the skin and enter cells.The nanostructure drug was designed to target epidermal growth factor receptor, a biomarker associated with a number of cancers. The researchers combined EGFR with a commercial moisturizer and applied the ointment to the skin of mice and to human epidermis. The drug penetrated the skin’s layers and selectively turned off disease-causing genes while sparing normal genes. No adverse side effects were found after a month of continued application.

Early targets of the treatment are melanoma and squamous cell carcinoma; psoriasis; diabetic wounds; and epidermolytic ichthyosis, a rare genetic skin disorder for which there has been no effective treatment. Other applications could include combatting wrinkles.

Mirkin’s coresearcher was Amy S. Paller, the Walter J. Hamlin Professor, chair of dermatology, and professor of pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine and director of Northwestern’s Skin Disease Research Center.

Voorhees Named Northwestern-Argonne Institute Codirector

Peter VoorheesPeter W. Voorhees, the Frank C. Engelhart Professor of Materials Science and Engineering (left), and Pete Beckman, director of the Exascale Technology and Computing Institute at Argonne National Laboratory (right), have been appointed codirectors of the Northwestern-Argonne Institute for Science and Engineering.

Pete BeckmanEstablished last year, the institute brings together Northwestern faculty and students and Argonne researchers to attack key problems in energy, nanoscience, and advanced scientific computing. A recent focus is on cutting-edge materials research to support President Obama’s Materials Genome Initiative for Global Competitiveness. The institute is aiming to strengthen Chicago’s innovation ecosystem by linking materials science experts and providing them with access to advanced tools.

Beckman and Voorhees will work together to enhance the experience of current Northwestern students, support and expand existing research programs and develop new ones, promote collaborations between Argonne and Northwestern, and streamline access to facilities.

Northwestern NSBE Chapter Lauded

Northwestern’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers has been recognized as the NSBE Region IV “Large Chapter of the Year” for its outstanding work in community outreach, academics, and professional development. Region IV includes Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio. “Large” chapters have at least 40 members.

The Northwestern chapter stood out for its effort in reestablishing a NSBE junior chapter at Evanston Township High School; its creation of the Engineering Interaction Fair for minority students ages 8 to 14; its weekly study halls for Northwestern students; mentorship programs; and other activities.

McCormick Student Wins Scientific Images Contest

The winning image: shadows created by graphene oxide foamFor the second year in a row, Andrew Koltonow, a McCormick graduate student in materials science and engineering, has won first prize in Northwestern’s Scientific Images Contest.

Presented by Science in Society, a University outreach initiative connecting science and the community, the contest recognizes research images that double as outstanding works of art. This year 12 winners from across Northwestern were recognized: five received top prizes and seven got honorable mentions. In all, seven winners were from McCormick.

Koltonow, who works in the labs of Jiaxing Huang, Morris E. Fine Junior Professor in Materials and Manufacturing, and Samuel I. Stupp, Board of Trustees Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Chemistry, and Medicine, captured the winning entry while working with graphene oxide, an organic macromolecule that is only a couple of atoms thick but thousands of atoms wide (like a molecular-scale bedsheet). Koltonow and his colleagues assemble these atomically thin sheets into a solid, conductive foam with a high surface area. The foam can be used to create electrodes for batteries and supercapacitors, making such energy storage devices smaller and lighter. In this image, graphene oxide sheets (purple-orange) cast shadows from light that is scattered off the foam (green-yellow), creating an eerie effect.

Shedding Light on Southpaws

Daniel AbramsA McCormick professor and graduate student have used computer simulation to explain why only 10 percent of the human population is left-handed. The mathematical model developed by Daniel M. Abrams, assistant professor of engineering sciences and applied mathematics, and graduate student Mark J. Panaggio (both right-handers) shows that the low percentage of lefties is a result of the balance between cooperation and competition in human evolution. The researchers are the first to use real-world data (from competitive sports) to test and confirm the relationship between handedness and social behavior.

“The more social the animal—where cooperation is highly valued—the more the general population will trend toward one side,” said Abrams. “The most important factor for an efficient society is a high degree of cooperation. In humans this has resulted in a right-handed majority.”

If society were entirely cooperative, everyone would be same-handed, Abrams said. Abrams and Panaggio’s model accurately predicts the percentage of left-
handers in any group based on the degrees of cooperation and competition in the social interaction. Lefties are much more prevalent in the competitive world of sports than in the general population. More than 50 percent of elite baseball players are left-handed, as are well above 10 percent of athletes in boxing, hockey, fencing, and table tennis.

Spintronic Logic Devices Hold Promise for Increased Computing Power

Bruce WesselsComputers have just about reached their limit of power using complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) technology in logic circuits. More powerful computers require more transistors; CMOS gives off more heat as transistors are added, causing a problem with heat dissipation. Engineers have been seeking an alternative, and McCormick researchers may have found it. They have developed a new logic circuit family based on magnetic semiconductor devices. The advance could lead to logic circuits up to a million times more powerful than today’s.

 Alan Sahakian“What we’ve developed is a ‘spintronic’ logic device that can be configured in a logic circuit that is capable of performing all the necessary Boolean logic and can be cascaded to develop sophisticated function units,” said Bruce W. Wessels, Walter P. Murphy Professor of Materials Science and Engineering (top).

“Spin logic circuits” are created with the magnetoresistive bipolar spin transistors recently patented by McCormick researchers. Unlike traditional integrated circuits, which consist of a collection of miniature transistors operating on a single piece of semiconductor, spin logic circuits use the quantum physics phenomenon of electron spin. “Spintronic logic devices successfully perform the same operations as a conventional CMOS circuit but with fewer devices and more computing power,” Wessels said.

While the breakthrough could take a decade to fully realize, “we think this is potentially groundbreaking,” said graduate student Joseph Friedman, who worked on the research. Other Northwestern authors include Gokhan Memik, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and Alan Sahakian, professor of electrical engineering and computer science (bottom).

McCormick In the Media

NUvention: Web Course Featured in Chicago Tribune

The Chicago Tribune covered the final spring 2012 presentations of NUvention: Web, the interdisciplinary course in which students design, build, and run software-based businesses in multidisciplinary teams. Students presented their concepts to the course’s advisory board, which offered feedback on branding, growth prospects, customer acquisition strategies, and revenue models.

The June 7 story mentioned “Sartorial, an iPhone app that allows shoppers to snap photos of themselves and have their friends vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on the products in real time; Hungry Nephew, an online community for families to share and store cherished recipes; Petora, a site that connects dog owners with vetted dog boarders; and Stagecoach, a platform that members of the video production industry can use to organize projects.”

For more on NUvention, see "A Tale of Three Companies".

Bubble-Free Boiling Featured by Several Outlets

Neelesh PatankarIf you’ve seen water droplets skip across a hot skillet, you have observed the Leidenfrost effect. In 1756 German sci-entist Johann Leidenfrost observed that, over a certain temperature, a vapor cushion forms above a surface, allowing that dance of water droplets. Neelesh Patankar, professor of mechanical engineering, and collaborators around the world have used that long-known phenomenon to boil water without bubbles. The trick is a special coated surface that creates a stable vapor cushion between a surface and a hot liquid, eliminating the bubbles.

“It was really dramatic,” Patankar told Nature about the discovery. The findings, which were also reported by Scientific American,  CBS News Tech, and NBC News Tech, could help reduce damage to surfaces, prevent bubbling explosions, and enhance heat-transfer equipment.

New Mercury Detector Reported by Two Magazines

Bartosz GrzybowskiWhen mercury is dumped into waterways, the toxic heavy metal can wind up in the fish we eat and the water we drink; even trace amounts can have long-term implications. In September both Discovery News and R&D magazine reported on a promising new detector from a Northwestern professor that may help avoid this danger.

A nanoparticle system developed by Bartosz Grzybowski, Kenneth Burgess Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, and collaborators in Switzerland can detect tiny amounts of mercury—more than 1 million times smaller than those detected by state-of-the-art current methods. The system is inexpensive and results are immediate. “With this system consumers would one day have the ability to test their home tap water for toxic metals,” Grzybowski said.

Tiny House Displayed at Museum

Students with the Tiny House Project“Tiny House,” a 128-square-foot, zero-net-energy house designed by Northwestern students and recent alumni, was on display at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry for two weeks last spring.

Northwestern students were on hand to show off the house, which took two years to design and build. It can function completely off the grid and comes equipped with a living room, kitchen, bathroom, sleeping loft, storage area, fireplace, and awning for shade. The house produces its own electricity using solar panels and collects all of its water through a rainwater catchment system.

Illinois Leaders Convene at Innovation Economy Conference

Dean Julio M. OttinoMore than 200 influential business leaders, academics, and scientists convened at Northwestern in June for “Building the Illinois Innovation Economy,” a two-day National Academy of Sciences conference. Illinois governor Pat Quinn, a graduate of the Northwestern University School of Law, delivered the opening keynote. “If we don’t invest in innovative opportunities, we’ll never see them grow,” Quinn told the audience. “Illinois is the middle of the country, the heart of the heartland … We have to embrace the people and the technology to make this happen.”

Dean Julio M. Ottino spoke on the role of universities in the broader innovation ecosystem. He described how McCormick students learn both left-brain analytical thinking and right-brain creative thinking so that they can thrive at the intersection of many fields. He talked about students learning design thinking and doing interdisciplinary work through courses like NUvention.

The two-day meeting highlighted the state’s innovation accomplishments and identified challenges faced by investigators, entrepreneurs, and universities.

New Thermoelectric Material Is Most Efficient Known

Chemists, physicists, material scientists, and mechanical engineers at Northwestern and Michigan State University have developed a thermoelectric material that is the best in the world at converting waste heat to electricity. The inefficiency of current thermoelectric materials (nearly two-thirds of energy input is lost as waste heat) has limited their commercial use. Now, with a very environmentally stable material that is expected to convert 15 to 20 percent of waste heat to useful electricity, thermoelectrics could see more widespread adoption by industry.

Possible areas of application include the automobile industry (much of gasoline’s potential energy goes out a vehicle’s tailpipe) and heavy manufacturing industries (such as refineries and power plants).

Developed by scientists including Mercouri Kanatzidis, Charles E. and Emma H. Morrison Professor of Chemistry, and Vinayak Dravid, Abraham Harris Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, the new material, based on the common semiconductor lead telluride, is the most efficient thermoelectric material known.

The efficiency of waste heat conversion in thermoelectrics is governed by its figure of merit, or ZT. This number represents a ratio of electrical conductivity and thermoelectric power in the numerator (which need to be high) and thermal conductivity in the denominator (which needs to be low). The new material exhibits a thermoelectric figure of merit of 2.2, the highest reported to date. The performance of the new material is nearly 30 percent more efficient than its predecessor. The researchers achieved this by scattering a wider spectrum of phonons across all wavelengths, which is important in reducing thermal conductivity.

Medical Startup Wins TechWeek Launch Competition

BriteSeed, a start-up developed by students in the NUvention: Medical Innovation courseBriteSeed, a startup developed by students in the NUvention: Medical Innovation course, won first place in the 2012 TechWeek Launch competition, walking away with more than $100,000 in cash and prizes.

Thirty-five progressive startups competed in TechWeek Launch, held during a June technology conference at Chicago’s Merchandise Mart.

BriteSeed’s product, SafeSnips, can be integrated into surgical tools to detect blood vessels and prevent unintended bleeding during surgery. The device was created during the 2011–12 academic year by a team of four students representing three Northwestern schools: Mayank Vijayvergia (far left) of the McCormick School, Paul Fehrenbacher (third from left) of the Feinberg School of Medicine, and Muneeb Bokhari (far right) and Jonathan Gunn (second from left) of the School of Law.

BriteSeed’s prizes included Microsoft software and hardware products; payroll, benefit, and risk management administration services; business consulting; legal services and consultation; and IT planning, design services, and development.

McCormick Faculty Awards

Monica Olvera de la CruzMonica Olvera de la Cruz, who is known for developing theoretical models to determine the thermodynamics, statistics, and dynamics of macromolecules in complex environments, has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Olvera de la Cruz is the Lawyer Taylor Professor of Materials Science and Engineering in the McCormick School, professor of chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, and director of the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center.

Membership in the NAS is one of the highest honors given in the United States to a scientist. Olvera de la Cruz is among 84 new members and 21 new foreign associates. She is also chair of the National Research Council’s Condensed Matter and Materials Research Committee and Board of Physics and Astronomy and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Physical Society, and the US Department of Defense’s National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellowship program. She received the NAS’s 2007 Cozzarelli Prize for a scientific paper.

Gregory OlsonGregory B. Olson, Walter P. Murphy Professor of Materials Science and Engineer­ing, has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is in a group of 220 new members, including eight others from Northwestern.

A designer of high-performance alloys, Olson is considered a founder of computational materials design. He directs the Materials Technology Laboratory/Steel Research Group at McCormick. Olson developed a systematic science-based approach for designing structural materials that calculates the optimum composition and processing route of desired properties.

Olson is also a member of the National Academy of Engineering. He founded a materials design company, QuesTek Innovations, whose first creation was a high-performance steel for gears. It was designed at Northwestern and licensed to the company. QuesTek developed the first fully computationally designed flight-qualified material, the Ferrium S53 steel aircraft landing gear.

Wing Kam LiuWing Kam Liu, Walter P. Murphy Professor of Mechanical Engi-neering, has received the 2012 Gauss-Newton Medal, the highest award given by the International Association for Computational Mechanics.

Liu is founding director of the National Science Foundation Summer Institute on Nanomechanics and Materials, founding chair of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ NanoEngineering Council, and cofounding director of Northwestern’s Predictive Science and Engineering Design Program.

A world leader in multiscale simulation-based engineering and science, Liu has applied atomistic, quantum, and continuum strategies toward the understanding and design of nanomaterials, biological processes, and use of organic and inorganic materials for drug delivery devices, biosensing, and other diagnostic and therapeutic applications.

Liu is Northwestern’s second winner of the Gauss-Newton Medal. Ted Belytschko, Walter P. Murphy Professor and McCormick Professor of Mechanical Engineering, won the award in 2002.

Jorge NocedalJorge Nocedal, professor of industrial engineering and management sciences and director of McCormick’s Optimization Center, has been awarded the 2012 Dantzig Prize for original research that has had a major impact in mathematical optimization. The prize is awarded every three years by the Mathematical Optimization Society and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics.

Nocedal has made fundamental contributions to the theory of nonlinear optimization methods and has created new algorithms for a variety of applications. His nonlinear optimization software, KNITRO, is used in the energy, computer, and financial industries to optimize everything from the design of computer chips to the production and delivery of electricity.

Cross-Disciplinary Group Presents Professional Theater at Tech

Students perform The How and the Why, a drama by playwright Sarah Treem Think the arts are just on South Campus? Think again. For three weeks this fall the Technological Institute’s Jerome B. Cohen Commons dining area was transformed into a 90-seat black box theater for The How and the Why, a drama by playwright Sarah Treem that examines how passion for science can set up unexpected rivalries.

The two-woman show was the fifth production of ETOPiA: Engineer-ing Transdisciplinary Outreach Project in the Arts, a McCormick outreach initiative funded in part by the National Science Foundation. ETOPiA’s goal: to use theater to inspire cross-disciplinary dialogue about the role of science and technology in society. To that end, each performance was followed by a talk-back session with Northwestern faculty and students. And with the talents of award-winning actors and directors, the production value is high. “Our annual performances at Tech have earned a solid reputation among professional performers and directors in the Chicago area,” said Matthew Grayson, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at McCormick and ETOPiA’s producer.

Two Projects Receive Global Health Research Grants

Keith TyoInnovative research in synthetic biology by three Northwestern professors has been recognized with two early-stage discovery awards from Grand Challenges Explorations, an initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. GCE awards support unconventional research that has promise to improve health in the developing world.

Each of Northwestern’s two projects will receive an 18-month grant of $100,000. Successful projects will have an opportunity for a second grant of up to $1 million.

Joshua LeonardKeith Tyo, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering (left), and Andreas Matouschek, professor of molecular biosciences in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, will develop synthetic compounds that could lead to new treatments for malaria. They are researching the potential destruction of Plasmodium, the parasite responsible for malaria, by its own protein degradation mechanisms.

In the other project, Tyo and Joshua Leonard, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering (right), will work to engineer yeast-based biosensors that identify protein biomarkers in substances such as blood and urine. These biosensors could be used in low-cost in-home diagnostic devices by patients in resource-poor settings.

McCormick Ranks High among Engineering Schools

McCormick ranks 16th in the world and 10th in the United States among engineering schools, according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings released this fall. Among universities Northwestern ranked 19th worldwide and 14th nationwide.

Powered by Thomson Reuters, the rankings judge universities across all of their core missions, including teaching, research, knowledge transfer, and international outlook. The rankings employ 13 performance indicators to provide comprehensive and balanced comparisons.

Gift Funds Regenerative Nanomedicine Center

A center that will enhance Northwestern’s global leadership in regenerative nanomedicine will be established with a $10 million gift from the Querrey Simpson Charitable Foundation. The Louis A. Simpson and Kimberly K. Querrey Center for Regenerative Nanomedicine, named for a 1958 alumnus of Weinberg College and Northwestern trustee and his wife, will operate within the Institute for BioNanotechnology in Medicine (IBNAM).

The nanomedicine research it will support will employ designed nanostructures in an attempt to create novel therapies to treat disease and trauma, discover avenues to regenerate bodily tissues and organs, develop innovative diagnostic devices, and improve understanding of biological systems.

The research of IBNAM director Samuel I. Stupp, clinical faculty, and students over the last decade shows great promise for regeneration of tissues. Some of Stupp’s novel materials promote regeneration in the central nervous system, which could affect therapies for spinal cord injury, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and other neurodegenerative diseases. Other work has focused on regeneration of cartilage, bone, and heart tissue; growth of new arteries; and diabetes treatments.