Vinothan Manoharan, chemical engineer and expert in the physics of self-assembly, has been granted tenure at Harvard University. He holds a joint appointment at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and in the Department of Physics as Gordon McKay Professor of Chemical Engineering and Professor of Physics.

Manoharan’s research focuses on understanding how some systems can spontaneously create order out of disorder. Self-assembling structures are common in nature, and Manoharan hopes to understand the physics behind that organizational process.

“If we can understand the general rules in nature, it should be possible for us to design synthetic systems that self-assemble,” says Manoharan. “That could lead to an entirely new way to make materials and devices.”

So far, Manoharan has been using nanoparticles as a model system for studying the basic principles of self-assembly, developing new imaging techniques such as holographic microscopy to see what happens at each stage of the process in three dimensions. The next step is to expand this work to the realm of the tiniest biological systems, observing how viruses, for example, can self-assemble from component proteins.

“If we can understand this process, it would not only help us figure out some ways to mimic that self-assembly in synthetic systems; it could also help us figure out ways to disrupt the process—for example, to stop a virus from reproducing,” Manoharan explains.

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