Lynden Archer is known for his work with “hairy” nanoparticles. He studies structure, dynamics, and transport at liquid-solid interfaces using polymer and hybrid materials with applications in energy storage technologies. He cofounded NOHMs Technologies to commercialize novel battery materials developed in his Cornell University lab. NOHMs, which stands for nanoscale organic hybrid materials, was named one of C&EN’s 10 Start-Ups to Watch in 2015. Archer is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a fellow of the American Physical Society. Simone A. Douglas-Green spoke with Archer about how he chose his research focus and what it takes to start a successful company. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Hometown: Georgetown, Guyana
Education: BS, University of Southern California, 1989; MS, 1990, and PhD, 1993, Stanford University
Current position: Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering and James A. Friend Family Distinguished Professor in Engineering, Cornell University
Fun project he’s been working on: I’ve learned to grow eggplants of all varieties—this is hard. I also discovered the New York Times Cooking website and have been on a virtual world tour of eggplant varieties and recipes.
Best professional advice he’s received: Closed doors provide direction.
Simone Douglas-Green: When was the moment you felt like a real scientist?
Lynden Archer: I was about 9 or 10 years old. My mom bought me a science book, and one of the chapters extolled the wonders of brewer’s yeast, which affects metabolism. My mom was entrepreneurial and raised broiler chickens as an income supplement, and she allowed me to experiment with metabolism by adding brewer’s yeast to a small portion of her flock. I had some chickens as controls even though I didn’t know what controls were at the time. I felt like a real scientist using the essential tools of science and discovery to answer a question, and that ultimately gave me more confidence.
SDG: As an aspiring professor, I am trying to figure out what the research focus of the Douglas-Green lab would look like one day. How did you figure out the research focus of the Archer Research Group?
LA: I think this is something aspiring professors stress themselves out too much over—the thought of coming out on day 1 with a career-defining research direction that they’re going to follow faithfully throughout a career. An essential part of growing and becoming successful as a scientist is understanding your core skill set and the things that excite you and working to develop those fully. Successful professors must be able to see change coming and have the tools ready to adapt. That means you’re reading the literature, you’re sitting in talks at conferences that aren’t in your area, and you’re hearing what other communities are thinking. The graduate student and postdoc years are excellent times to identify and burnish these core skills.
SDG: This is fantastic advice to hear, especially as a new postdoc in a chemical engineering lab coming from a biomedical engineering background looking to expand my skill set in drug delivery design. Can you talk about the design process of your nanoparticles?
LA: It occurred to me that if one can make hairy nanoparticles that are uniformly covered with an oligomer, it should be possible to create new types of inorganic-organic hybrid materials. We discovered that if you inspected one family of the materials in an electron microscope, they look like sand, but if you observed them with the naked eye, they look like a viscous fluid. I later wrote a National Science Foundation proposal hypothesizing that an entire class of functional inorganic-organic hybrid materials can be created from the basic building blocks, but at the time I had no idea what function would emerge as useful. The connection with electrical energy storage in metal-anode batteries (Adv. Mater. 2013, DOI: 10.1002/adma.201303070 and Nat. Energy 2016, DOI: 10.1038/nenergy.2016.114), which now forms about 75% of the research in my group, emerged completely by accident after listening to a talk by a colleague working on block copolymer electrolytes for safe batteries. The lesson here is that you need to be prepared, but there’s also the serendipity of opportunity. If there wasn’t a need for a function in the NSF program directive, I would have likely continued studying only the fundamental aspects, perhaps with more limited impact.
SDG: Do you remember a key experiment that led to some remarkable discoveries?
LA: In polymer science, there’s a well-worn principle known as time-temperature superposition, wherein studies of a material’s response over a small period of time and at a range of temperatures are used to infer a response over a large range of time at a fixed temperature. We discovered that by applying strain (instead of temperature) to our hairy nanoparticles, it is possible to use measurements of their dynamic responses on timescales on the order of seconds to infer dynamical behaviors on extraordinarily large timescales (Nano Lett. 2009, DOI: 10.1021/nl9029847). We still don’t know fundamentally where this characteristic originates, but we know that it is related to an unjamming transition produced by strain and that it is commonplace in these hybrid materials.
SDG: You cofounded NOHMs Technologies. How did you take your research on energy storage and batteries from benchtop to developing a company?
LA: I think it requires a culture in which students and postdocs who carry out the studies have an interest in commercializing their work. One postdoc made a major discovery related to sulfur (Angew. Chem., Int. Ed. 2011, DOI: 10.1002/anie.201100637), and there was interest in commercializing this. We filed a patent, formed the company with the postdoc as the first employee, and the company grew. A successful company is less about the product and more about the nimbleness of the people to redesign and reconfigure that product to meet current market needs. We started with this idea of making rechargeable batteries based on exceptional cathodes that would measurably improve cell-level energy density relative to today’s lithium-ion technology, and the market was not ready for that. The market was still focused on improvements to lithium-ion technology. The NOHMs technical team discovered that an analogous hybrid platform (Angew. Chem., Int. Ed. 2010, DOI: 10.1002/anie.201004551) based on ionic liquid chemistry could be leveraged to create powerful additives for tuning important electrolyte characteristics (e.g., flammability) in today’s lithium-ion batteries.
LA: I’ve done a bit of research on your background, too. It is clear that you’re on quite a strong trajectory. If you were attempting to leverage success diversifying the undergrad student body to grad students and faculty, what are some tips you would offer?
SDG: I had the opportunity to cofound a student organization called BEAM (Biomedical Engineering Alliance for Minorities) at Georgia Tech. One lesson I learned is that student leaders can use their influence to improve departments for their own benefit. We’ve seen a steady increase in the number of graduate students from underrepresented groups over the past 2–3 years, and they’re doing well. You also need faculty support to augment student efforts. Now that I have the experience of forming BEAM, I feel confident that I have learned best practices to take to other institutions as my career continues. I encourage trainees to take on roles to gain similar leadership experience, then go on to academic positions to help implement systemic change.
LA: I look forward to watching you excel. We have a very strong biomedical engineering department at Cornell that was founded by chemical engineers. Please keep Cornell Engineering in mind.
SDG: Thank you, and I will! It was great to hear about your work and gain more insight into your scientific journey.
Hometown: Coral Springs, Florida
Education: BS, University of Miami, 2015; PhD, Georgia Institute of Technology, 2020
Current position: Postdoc, chemical engineering, Massachusettes Institute of Technology, working in Paula Hammond’s lab
Favorite Lab Tool: Ethanol-resistant marker with a good tip. I like to make sure my things are labeled clearly to make my lab life easier. Multicolor lab tape is a close second for the same reason.
Best professional advice she’s received: “No” is an answer. Set boundaries for yourself and people will learn to respect them. (I’m still working on this one.)