Stealing from Nature

Photo by Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard Staff PhotographerPhoto by Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard Staff Photographer
By Michael Patrick Rutter

Ira Flatow, host of National Public Radio’s Science Friday, went in for the killer question. Discussing Joanna Aizenberg’s work on nanobristles—tiny, hairlike pillars that can be coaxed into exquisite shapes—he quipped, “You have discovered something looking for a use.”

Aizenberg, a pioneer in the emerging field of biomimetics (using biological principles 
as a guide to developing new artificial materials and devices), returned the salvo. The interlaced bristles, which do in fact hold promise as an adhesive, a chemical
 mixing tool, and an elastic energy source, illustrate the successful “merger between physical sciences and biological sciences.” Aizenberg and her team are looking not only for applications, but for “new science that can describe biological phenomena or self-assembly phenomena.”

When even the most generous of science reporters seems to equate a discovery’s merit with its application, academic leaders take note—as has Harvard’s president. In her June speech at Trinity College, Dublin, Drew Faust cautioned that by focusing too much on science as an economic engine or a purveyor of products, “we encourage a devaluation of basic scientific research,” penalize risk, and box in ambition.

Aizenberg, who juggles two primary appointments, at the Radcliffe Institute and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), escapes conventional expectations, “stealing” (her word) ingenious designs from bottom-dwelling sea creatures to enhance optics and even analyzing the ring under her coffee cup to fashion tools.

As for showing value, she described her self-assembled bristles as “a unique structure reminiscent of modern dreadlocks or mythical Medusa” and invited comparisons to the Andy Francis Cutti sculpture The Kiss (two intertwined slabs carved from a granite staircase). She ended her chat with Flatow by suggesting that a fantastic use of the nanobristles was “just to hang them on the wall.”

Photo by Sung Hoon Kang, Joanna Aizenberg, and Boaz PokroyPhoto by Sung Hoon Kang, Joanna Aizenberg, and Boaz PokroyIn fact, several poster-size photos of the spiraled nanohairs hang in Aizenberg’s office in Pierce Hall. Another was a gift to the Kavli Foundation, which supports her research. A variant of the helical clusters, all hugging a green micro-polystyrene ball, won the 2010 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge, sponsored by the journal Science and the National Science Foundation.

Aizenberg credits Radcliffe for her rebel attitude. The Institute gave her a sturdy footing and the time, space, and community to thrive. In fact, without Radcliffe, she never would have ended up at Harvard.

Finding the Right Footing

The Russian-born Aizenberg was introduced to the Radcliffe Institute through the 2005 “Designing Biology” symposium, hosted by then dean of science Barbara J. Grosz. Aizenberg liked what she saw: trust in far-out thinking, a necessary condition for the work she was doing. At that time, bio-inspired engineering and design was, in the words of speaker Ellen Williams, just “breaking open.”

Having worked at Bell Labs, Aizenberg was used to intellectual freedom. According to SEAS Dean Cherry A. Murray, the famed interdisciplinary outpost “tolerated weirdness.” Aizenberg reported to Murray (then a vice president for research at Bell) and did some of her groundbreaking work on the brittlestar, an elegant, eyeless sea creature that uses its skeleton to see. Looking back, Murray remembers that Aizenberg was becoming the leader in deciphering natural design simply by following her passions.

Faust, then dean of Radcliffe, led
 a recruitment effort with help from Venkatesh “Venky” Narayanamurti,
 the dean of SEAS at that time, who was eager to build up both chemical and biological engineering. The tipping point in the courtship was not the new $200 million nanofabrication laboratory that had just gone online, the launch of the new engineering school, or even the stellar reputation of Harvard itself. It was a philosophy embedded in a place.

Aizenberg recalls that she was attracted by what Faust was trying to do at the Institute. The future president’s notion that “universities want to upset people”—as in upset their expectations and make them wrestle with uncomfortable truths—made sense to her. Building an academically agnostic Institute, Faust was making it safe to be dangerous and okay to do cool stuff that did not fit neatly into a department or a school.

“Knowing my quirks, it was very important to have Radcliffe as an anchor,” Aizenberg says.

Exploration Without Expectations

Aizenberg’s 2007 appointment as a Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor at the Radcliffe Institute allowed her the luxury of spending four semesters there. For the 2010–2011 year, she is on sabbatical as a Radcliffe fellow.

Radcliffe has given Aizenberg time and space to reach out across the campus and make connections with other departments, schools, institutes, and University-wide efforts—amounting to a laundry list of affiliations. “Radcliffe is about as broad as it gets, and that’s amazing,” she says, explaining that, unfortunately, not many places in the world remain so open and free for exploration without specific expectations. “We are lucky to have it,” she says, meaning not just the Harvard community but the larger academic universe that benefits from Radcliffe’s existence.

Aizenberg’s SEAS colleague Salil Vadhan ’95, RI ’05, Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science, describes 
a similar experience: finding “a sense 
of community and interaction across 
a wide range of academic disciplines” while still having the freedom to pursue his own work.

In short, Radcliffe has become a modern version of the Metaphysical Club. That 19th-century Harvard-based network, led by such luminaries as legal scholar Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and psychologist William James, helped to usher in modern American intellectualism with its no-holds-barred approach to research. In the words of Harvard scholar Louis Menand, the club’s lasting contribution was the concept that “ideas are social.” They are not handed down but, rather, emergent, just like those self-assembling systems Aizenberg works on. Instead of being trapped in amber to be admired from afar, they emerge through conversation and unusual collaborations.

Aizenberg’s experiences at Radcliffe provide that otherwise missing social connection. “I have a broad way of acting,” she says. “I am a fan of being part of every possible discipline and profession.”

In celebrating the Institute’s 10th anniversary, Grosz called it a “refuge for scholars.” In a time of economic cuts to higher education and student strikes at London universities, her turn of phrase makes increasing sense. For Aizenberg, Radcliffe has become something more than a pit stop, a retreat, or a refuge. It has truly become her home.

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