Houston, Texas-based Rice University has nominated Naomi Halas, Ph.D., a pioneer in the field of nanotechnology, as new director of the Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology. The researcher is among the most cited and recognized names of the academic institution and has already stated that she is planning to enlarge the facility’s scope, as well as dedicate more resources to establish new partnerships on the frontiers of science.
Dr. Halas has been chosen for her outstanding career, as she is one of the most renowned experts in nanophotonics, as well as the Stanley C. Moore Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering and a professor of biomedical engineering, chemistry and physics and astronomy. Halas also serves as director of the Rice Quantum Institute (RQI) and has been the first member of the university to be selected as a member of both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.
“As the director of the Smalley Institute, Naomi Halas is going to bring both vision and energy to the organization’s research, education and outreach efforts,” said Rice Provost George McLendon. “Rice has a rich history of solving difficult problems in advanced materials, quantum magnetism, plasmonics, photonics, biophysics, ultracold atomic physics, condensed matter, chemical physics and all areas of nanoscience and nanotechnology. Dr. Halas will be in a unique position to foster Rice’s continued success and leadership in all of those areas.”
“The landscape in science changes year by year,” Halas said. “Many exciting efforts that define the frontier of science in 2015 have emerged in the last five years. It’s important for us to broaden our scope in order to build on and communicate that excitement and to stay engaged, not only with our local intellectual community but with our regional and national communities as well.”
In order to expand the pioneer research being conducted at the institute, Halas is panning on enlarging the scope of the Smalley Institute’s efforts. “The traditional areas that were defined by RQI [Rice Quantum Institute] include condensed matter physics, atomic and molecular physics, optics, materials, physical chemistry, inorganic chemistry and soft condensed matter,” she explained.
“What the Smalley Institute brought to this was a natural extension into new types of applications. If you look at the Smalley Institute’s members, you will find people who are working on engineering problems using tools from nanotechnology. One of the visions for coordinating the efforts of RQI and the Smalley Institute is to foster these efforts and expand them to engage the broader community,” she said.
Halas believes that the Rice Quantum Institute and the Smalley Institute are able to foster research on the frontiers of science by focusing on nanotechnology, which is now present everywhere, unlike when she started researching. “Nano, as fostered by the National Nanotechnology Initiative, was a resounding success. Nano is everywhere now, in virtually all disciplines, and has become a foundation that enables us to both envision and conduct research in entirely new ways. Nano is an essential foundation for our scientific and technological futures.”
“Rick [Smalley] was always keenly aware that science is a rapidly evolving and highly dynamic enterprise and that research at Rice grew and developed in a very interdisciplinary and cross-cutting way,” Halas said. “As we move forward, we can always anticipate the unanticipated — new discoveries, surprising insights, entirely new fields emerging from our research.”
In addition, the new director believes that both the Rice Quantum Institute and the Smalley Institute are able to serve the community with fundamental and applied physical sciences at Rice, developing emerging materials, their properties and applications. Therefore, she plans on focusing on new opportunities for initiatives and coordinated programs with joined goals.
“It is important to make sure all voices are included. The reason for an institute in the first place is to foster and enhance the research experience for everyone in this broad area,” she said. “Research is a communications-dependent enterprise, and we work best when we interact more. I believe in the Steve Jobs vision: He constructed buildings where people were literally forced to run into one other and interact on a daily basis. We can emulate that at Rice. Developing more reasons for researchers to bump into each another will make even more exciting things happen — to ensure that we all ‘stay hungry, stay foolish,’ as Steve would say.”
The directions and activities of the institutes are going to be led by Rice’s faculty members, according to Halas, who also said that among RQI’s biggest achievements is its annual research colloquium. “Even though that takes place in the middle of the summer, it has become a very popular, well-attended and essential activity for the broader physical sciences research community at Rice,” she said.
“Bringing more opportunities year-round for faculty, postdocs and graduate students to communicate, interact and showcase their work, and to learn from each other, will also be part of the equation for the Smalley Institute. Interaction enhances everyone,” Halas added, while she said to believe that there are other Rice institutes who are examples of vision.
“The Ken Kennedy Institute (for Information Technology) is an excellent model for a university research institute,” she said. “They are in a very different field, but they have developed a community where people know well what each other are doing and can very easily connect. New topics can emerge, just because of the way people interact with one another.”
Halas joined Rice University in 1990, where she currently conducts studies related to the interaction between light and engineered nanoparticles. The research in her lab is focused on a broad spectrum ranging from electromagnetic theory to chemical nano fabrication. Her team has designed several new varieties of nanoparticles that are engineered to interact with light in specific manners, including performing functions in unique applications, such as cancer treatment, sanitation, water purification and optoelectronics.
In addition, she has been named member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Materials Research Society, the Optical Society, the American Physical Society, the International Society for Optical Engineering and the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
Halas was also honored in 2013 along with three other scientists by BioHouston, at their Annual Luncheon Celebrating Women in Science. BioHouston aims to foster biotechnology in Houston by bringing together the best minds in science with the people who can help them turn their ideas and discoveries into successful products and services, and the event aimed to recognize women in the STEM fields and brought together a wide range of experts.