Chad A. Mirkin is awarded this year's Dickson Prize in Science

Credit: Zichen Liu/Photo Editor Credit: Zichen Liu/Photo Editor Credit: Zichen Liu/Photo Editor Credit: Zichen Liu/Photo Editor Credit: Zichen Liu/Photo Editor Credit: Zichen Liu/Photo Editor

Carnegie Mellon annually awards the Dickson Prize in Science to “individuals in the United States who make outstanding contributions to science.” This year’s award, which includes both a medal and a cash prize, went to Chad A. Mirkin, director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology and the George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry at Northwestern University.

Mirkin has been the recipient of over a hundred national and international honors and is one of fewer than 20 individuals who have been elected to all three National Science academies — the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. He has also played a role in creating science policy during the Obama administration, as he served as a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science & Technology. He is one of the top cited chemists in the world, with over 670 publications and nearly 300 patents to his name. He is also the founding editor of Small, a journal dedicated to nanotechnology.

Mirkin accepted the Dickson award on Feb. 2 and gave a lecture titled “Nanotechnology: Small Things Matter” at Carnegie Mellon, which was followed by a reception.

According to Mirkin, a nanoscale object is defined as an object which has at least one dimension — length, width, or height — that is between one and 100 nanometers.

The lecture started with an introduction to the history of nanotechnology. A historical use of nanoparticles was in the stained-glass windows that adorned many historical buildings, even though people didn’t know that at the time these buildings were being designed and built. Mirkin then delved into the modern period of nanotechnology expansion and research. While it is difficult to pinpoint an exact start to this modern period, Mirkin pointed to a lecture by Richard Feynman at the California Institute of Technology called “Plenty of Room at the Bottom”, in which Feynman hypothesized that we may be able to arrange atoms in exactly the way we want in the future, and a nanotechnology research initiative spearheaded by then-president Clinton in 2000, as catalysts for the growth in interest in nanotechnology in the past few decades.

Mirkin emphasized that nanoscale objects can have very different properties from their macroscale counterparts. An example of a property that changes with size (and shape) is Rayleigh scattering — the scattering of light by the particles themselves. He showed a slide comparing the scattering colors of different gold and silver nano particles. For example, gold spheres at the scale of 100 nanometers correspond to a yellow-orange color while gold spheres at around 50 nanometers correspond to a light green color. This is why stained-glass windows could maintain their bright hues over centuries without degradation, unlike most paints.

He also mentioned various technologies that are needed in order to manipulate objects on a smaller-than microscopic scale. These include the scanning electron microscope, the transmission electron microscope, and the scanning tunneling microscope.

The atomic force microscope is used in dip-pen nanolithography, the technique of using a microscopic tip — which could be made of different materials, such as rubber or harder spring-like materials — to print patterns using different kinds of “inks” on various solid substrates. Mirkin played a major role in developing the technique of dip-pen nanolithography, eventually expanding it to a printing method containing tens of thousand of tips. There are wide-ranging applications because this technology allows the manipulation of different substrates (such as biosensors) at the submicroscopic scale. Thus, this nanolithography method was recognized by National Geographic as one of the 100 discoveries that changed the world.

Mirkin emphasized the theme of applying nanotechnology in biology and medicine. He mentioned Verigene, a test developed by one of his companies that looks for gene abnormality or infection in a patient’s blood and allows better diagnosis, reduces cost, and lessens the prescriptions of needless antibiotics, which can cause antibiotic resistance. It reads the DNA of a patient and through this information can detect genetic mutations and sensitivity to different drugs. In addition, his group played a major role in developing spherical nucleic acids, which are nucleic acids “wrapped” around an inorganic nanoscale core. This allows them to penetrate cells and take measures on them while they are alive, opening up the possibilities of personalized treatment or medicine.

There are still many challenges for expanding this combination of medicine and nanotechnology, mostly because humans are living beings with unique chemical environments. “Developing and understanding how new types of drugs can work in living systems is not a trivial process, and it requires a lot of refining and a lot of experiments,” said Mirkin in an interview with The Tartan.

However, despite the challenges, Mirkin sees a lot of potential for the field of nanotechnology in the future. “I think nanotechnology is the answer to two major unmet medical needs—one is the ability to get DNA and RNA-based drugs into organs where you can flip genetic switches and correct disease, and where you can harness a patient’s immune system to create new types of cancer vaccines,” said Mirkin.

Perhaps the smallest technologies available to us is the next “big thing” in terms of making progress with some of the most challenging areas for medical researchers today.