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Angela Belcher

The MacArthur Fellow talks about tackling science from all sides

by Bethany Halford
April 7, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 14

Credit: Donna Coveney/MIT
Credit: Donna Coveney/MIT

CHEMISTRY CALLS ITSELF the central science, but few chemists find themselves at the crossroads of as many disciplines as Angela M. Belcher does. One need look no further than her title—the Germehausen Professor of Materials Science & Engineering & Biological Engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology—to get an idea that this self-described materials chemist is doing more than dabbling in the worlds of biology, engineering, and materials science.

"I love the idea of engineering biology to do nonbiological problems," Belcher explains. Her research takes biological systems, such as viruses and yeast, and guides their evolution so that they build technologically important materials from elements they would never find in their natural environment.

Her convergent approach to scientific research has won Belcher top honors for creativity and originality. In 2004, she garnered a MacArthur Fellowship—commonly known as a genius grant—and in 2006, Scientific American named her the research leader of the year. She also used her biomaterials and nanotechnology know-how to cofound Cambrios, a high-tech start-up in Mountain View, Calif. (C&EN, Oct. 3, 2005, page 26).

"We've been getting really good in the last couple of years at using biology and biological mechanisms to grow and assemble materials and functional devices," Belcher says of her research. Right now she's using this approach to create materials for energy conversion and storage, carbon sequestration, catalysis, and biomedical applications. For example, her lab has coaxed a bacteriophage into building a rechargeable battery from cobalt oxide.

"When I started out, we were interested in making things because they were interesting materials," Belcher notes. "Now we're more interested in making something useful that has an impact. We want to help solve some of the most important problems in society. To do that, we have to learn more about the state of the art, what the problems are, and what the opportunities are in these different disciplines."

To that end, Belcher says that she is always trying to incorporate a diverse range of scientific areas into her research. "I'm on my toes every day trying to understand aspects of these emerging areas," she says. "I'm definitely not an expert in everything, but as our work progresses, I feel we have to raise our level of expertise."

So, what's Belcher's secret when it comes to breaking into a new discipline? "I have no problem admitting I know nothing about something and trying to learn it," she responds. "When we first started working in batteries, I didn't know anything about them, but I was willing to admit that and learn."

It's a tack Belcher has taken since her days as a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. For her doctoral research Belcher had three mentors—a chemist, a physicist, and a molecular biologist. She followed that up with postdoctoral work in electrical engineering.

Belcher's multifaceted approach hasn't always been looked upon so positively, though. When she started at her first faculty position nine years ago, she says, colleagues told her that she needed to pick a specific field to go into. They said that she should aim to be well-known in one particular area, rather than working at the interface of a number of different disciplines.

Now, Belcher says, it's so much easier to be a scientist taking a multidisciplinary approach. "I look at the graduate applications that come into my departments, and there are students from all different disciplines of science and engineering applying for one particular program. It's so great to see," she says.

"I think that multidisciplinary thinking and approaches are going to go a long way toward making major breakthroughs," Belcher says. "I think that can be key to pushing science forward and solving the next generation of challenges, whether it's in energy, medicine, or the environment."

BELCHER'S OWN RESEARCH GROUP is a living example of this multidisciplinary philosophy. Her students and postdocs come from chemistry, biology, physics, mechanical engineering, civil engineering, biological engineering, and materials science. "I bring students into my group because they're the smartest and most dedicated students I can find. And then, within the areas that I'm funded in, I kind of let them loose," she says.

"They work together and they speak together all the time," Belcher adds. She says she loves to walk out of her office to find her students teaching each other about their fields of expertise. "I select people who get along well together, which is key. I don't like competition within my group. That's always going to happen a little bit, but I like team building," she notes.

"I think it's an incredibly interesting time to be a scientist or an engineer," Belcher says. Whether it's in energy, the environment, or health care, science and engineering is capable of addressing so many of the problems facing the world today. "I'm not saying all the problems in the world can be solved by scientists and engineers," Belcher says, "but there are so many important opportunities right now."



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