Campus & Community

Aizenberg named McKay Professor of Materials Science

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Joanna Aizenberg, a leader in the analysis of unique biomaterials that have evolved to carry out multiple functions in some organisms, has been appointed Gordon McKay Professor of Materials Science in Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and its School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), effective July 1, 2007.

Aizenberg, 47, comes to Harvard from Bell Laboratories at Lucent Technologies.

“I am thrilled that Joanna Aizenberg, one of the leaders in the emerging field of biomimetics, is joining us,” says Venkatesh Narayanamurti, dean of SEAS and John A. and Elizabeth S. Armstrong Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “Her research celebrates the endless and often unexpected ingenuity of the natural world, and at the same time, melds such insights with the latest advances in engineering.”

Aizenberg has also been named the first Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, a post that will allow her to spend four semesters at Radcliffe during her first five years at Harvard.

“Dr. Aizenberg’s work melding physics with biology and chemistry exemplifies the interdisciplinary research that the Radcliffe Institute welcomes and fosters,” says Drew G. Faust, Harvard president-elect, Radcliffe Institute dean, and Lincoln Professor of History in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “Joanna Aizenberg will enrich the Radcliffe community and the University more broadly with her path-breaking research and her wide-ranging interests.”

“Harvard is deeply grateful to Susan and Kenneth Wallach for making this collaboration between the Radcliffe Institute and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences possible,” Faust adds.

Aizenberg is interested in understanding the economy with which biology solves complex materials problems, stimulating scientists to look at biological materials in a new “technological” way and to use biological principles to design novel, superior, multifunctional materials and devices.

Aizenberg’s research has illuminated amazingly complex behavior in certain species’ mineral components. She has demonstrated, for instance, that the skeletons of some simple marine creatures — the brittle star and Venus’ flower basket — not only provide the expected structural support for the organisms, but also function as exquisite optical devices.

She has shown that the brittle star’s skeleton acts as a sophisticated lens, focusing light onto receptor cells in the organism’s interior. More recently, she has demonstrated that the Venus’ flower basket, an elaborate sponge, uses its silicate skeleton both for structure and as a web of well-engineered optical fibers transmitting light around its body.

Aizenberg has also studied the use of structured surfaces to direct the growth of crystals with highly controlled shapes, crystallographic orientation, and micropattern. Inspired by natural biomineralization, she has used synthetic organic structures to drive synthesis of inorganic crystalline materials.

“Dr. Aizenberg’s expertise will be a perfect fit since members of SEAS, along with other faculty throughout Harvard, are ramping up research efforts that lie at the interface of engineering, nanoscience, and biology,” Narayanamurti says. “Even more exciting, this interdisciplinary area offers great potential for future discoveries in areas ranging from optics to novel materials, devices, and tools, to even architecture.”

Aizenberg holds B.S. and M.S. degrees from Moscow State University, awarded in 1981 and 1984, respectively, and a Ph.D. from the Weizmann Institute of Science, awarded in 1996. She was a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of George M. Whitesides, Woodford L. and Ann A. Flowers University Professor in Harvard’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, from 1996 to 1998, when she joined Bell Labs.