Celebrating Science and Engineering Breakthroughs II

03/28/2011 3:30 PM KresgeAngela Belcher, Germeshausen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and Biological Engineering; Christine Ortiz, Dean for Graduate Education MIT, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering; Sara Seager, Professor of Physics and Ellen Swallow Richards Associate Professor of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, MIT:; Dr. Maria T. Zuber, E.A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics, Head of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, MIT ; Description: Four women who have made ground"breaking contributions in different disciplines describe their research, which has not only involved 'thinking outside the box,' but in some cases persevering in the face of skepticism.

Two presenters work on the frontier of biological systems and materials science, and find both inspiration and practical subject matter in aquatic life forms. For Angela Belcher, the abalone offers a model for development of organic/inorganic hybrid structures. The shell of this creature, which is 3000 times tougher than its purely geological counterpart, consists of stacks of calcium carbonate in precise geometries, made from just 20 different amino acids, says Belcher. Some years ago, she had the insight that it might be possible to fabricate hybrid materials, kind of like an abalone, "at a living/nonliving interface." She set about creating an organism that could build structures like battery electrodes, using bacterial hosts injected with viruses that had an affinity for a particular material. "When I said I was trying to develop a genetic link between semiconductor materials and biology, I was told I was insane," says Belcher. "But it came out OK." Undaunted, Belcher is now developing biological batteries with virus"sized electrodes and other devices for environmental and medical applications.

Christine Ortiz can probe structural biological materials down to the molecular level. She wants to understand the bio"mechanical architecture of organisms inside and out that contribute to their ability to withstand harsh conditions such as high temperatures and pressures, and physical blasts, and find ways of emulating these systems for human use. She was drawn to biological materials "because of their complexity and beauty," and collected a lab full of live, exotic animal models. She fastened on one particularly helpful organism: the three"spined stickleback fish whose flexible ceramic armor resists penetration. Ortiz examined this fish armor all the way to a nano scale, to understand and possibly recreate its unique geometry, strength, load"bearing capacity, and flexibility. She is discovering "some uniform, universal design principles" that may come in handy developing better protective devices for people.

Two planetary scientists describe their bold ventures. A physicist by training, Sara Seager became interested in exoplanets in 1996. "People were still uncertain these were real, and said, don't work on this." Increasing numbers of candidate planets began to emerge, as detection techniques improved. Seager was refining her own search strategy, investigating distant chemical signatures of exoplanet atmospheres, and found a home at MIT in 2007, where "people are really open to new ideas that the rest of the world thinks are crazy and impossible." She connected with space systems engineering, and a team of eager students in the "technologically challenging" quest of "finding Earths suitable for follow"up observations." They are designing a fleet of inexpensive nanosatellites to launch into low"earth orbit to detect possible exoplanets. Seager describes an imagined Earth"like planet, orbiting close to its sun. With one side locked in permanent night, and one side in permanent day, "it might not be such a great place to visit."

Maria Zuber seems convinced that Mars, so inhospitable at the moment, at one point offered the right conditions for life. She walks through the 3+ billion year Martian history, with an early period featuring astonishingly prolific volcanic flows ("10 thousand Mauna Loas worth of volcanism"), which yielded CO2 for the atmosphere, water for the surface, and ample warmth. The current surface of the planet, she shows, reveals evidence of this water, with riverbeds and mudcracks. Liquid water remains, but beneath the surface, where it is warmer.
While there is "an incredible emotional bias" to discover Earth"like life on Mars, Zuber knows it will look different. She's seeking "life in extreme environments," and sniffing for ribosomal RNA -- the stuff of "extraterrestrial genomes." She has eager accomplices: "It's fantastic to be at a place like MIT where when you say you want to do something like look for life on Mars, people actually want to help you rather than tell you you're out of your mind."
About the Speaker(s): In 2006, Angela Belcher was named 2006 Research Leader of the Year and a member of the Scientific American 50," the magazine's annual list of individuals, teams, companies and other organizations whose accomplishments demonstrate outstanding technological leadership. Belcher was recognized for "the use of custom"evolved viruses to advance nanotechnology," according to the magazine.
Belcher won a MacArthur Fellowship Award in 2004 and has also received the Presidential Early Career Award in Science and Engineering (2000), and the Du Pont Young Investigators Award (1999).
Prior to MIT, Belcher was an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Texas, Austin. She received her B.S. in 1991 from the University of California, Santa Barbara and her Ph.D. from the same institution in 1997.
Host(s): Office of the President, MIT150 Inventional Wisdom


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