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Four steps to accelerate innovation

Is there a formula for making big scientific discoveries? There is, and here’s the secret

When big breakthroughs emerge, history tends to favor their tangible outcomes: Thomas Edison and his light bulb, the Wright brothers and their airplane. Yet the true story lies in what drives these groundbreaking discoveries — whether there is a clear formula for charting and changing the course of history.

In the corners of the country’s top nanotechnology labs, that formula exists, and it’s rooted in a simple yet powerful idea: doing science for the sake of science. This key concept comes to life through four steps to making better, faster and stronger innovations.

1. Seek discovery even when the path is unclear 

The work of great scientists is rarely black and white — on the contrary, much depends on keeping an open mind to wherever work may lead.

“Many of my discoveries can be traced to curiosity,” says Jiaxing Huang, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern University, whose research focuses on graphene-based soft materials. He encourages students to pursue their ideas, even if they’re unsure of where it might go, for now.

For example, the discovery of crumpled graphene balls — a type of ultrafine particles with a unique shape that helps them self-disperse when added to any kind of solvent — was inspired while tossing crumpled paper balls back and forth one afternoon. “It was the intuitive experience with paper balls that finally made us realize crumpled graphene balls’ new properties — that they don’t stick to each other even after being squeezed together,” Huang explains. “This is an unprecedented new property for ultrafine particles, called aggregation resistance. It makes the graphene particles dispersible in arbitrary solvents without the need for any surface treatment.”

The implication? This nanoparticle powder can be directly added to motor oil to enhance its lubricating properties, saving fuel usually wasted in unnecessary frictions and protecting mechanical parts in engines and transmission against wear. Multiply that effect by millions of cars, and it’s an example of how a nanoparticle can have a major impact on the economy and the environment. 

2. Actively pursue interdisciplinary projects 

“We never stop a project if it’s going beyond the limits of a category like ‘chemistry’ anymore,” says William Dichtel, MacArthur Fellow and Robert L. Letsinger Professor of Chemistry at Northwestern. Real innovators follow the science, no matter where it leads or what category it falls into.

John Rogers, the Louis Simpson and Kimberly Querrey Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Biomedical Engineering and Neurological Surgery at Northwestern, exemplifies this concept by inviting physicians to gain engineering experience. Dr. Steve Xu, one of three doctors working in his lab, is a dermatologist focused on technology. “Embedding Xu in the group brings real practical insights into what kind of technologies are useful for doctors and patients, and how even some of our more exploratory basic science programs might have relevance to clinical needs” Rogers says.

Rogers also works with two other groups at Northwestern to advance medical outcomes: the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) and the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. At RIC, Rogers collaborates with peers to understand how stroke patients, who often suffer from motion disorders, recover during rehab. He created skin-mounted devices to monitor motor function by measuring electrical signals from leg or arm muscles, along with quantitative information on the associated motions. These data are then analyzed through computational algorithms. The results help researchers and physicians evaluate muscle recovery — and determine more efficient rehab treatments.

The same technology transfers to treat premature babies. At Lurie, Rogers collaborates with pediatric physicians to develop less intrusive ways to monitor vital signs. Traditionally, tapes adhere medical wires to babies’ skin, which can be harmful and physically constrain natural movement. This hardware also make is difficult to accommodate mother/child skin contact during this critical developmental period. Working together, Rogers and pediatricians are working to replace current hardware with a few ultrathin, soft devices, each operating wirelessly, for safer vital sign recording.

3. Embed collaboration and teamwork into your practice 

Big discoveries are often attributed to a single scientist. But in scientific research today, particularly in nanotechnology, major advances are made by skilled teams working together: The development of porous polymers — with their enormous potential applications in the electronics and energy-storage devices of the future — will likely be attributed to Dichtel. But he will be the first to share the credit with team members, citing their invaluable role in the discovery.

Great things happen when you open up the lab to others, Dichtel explains. He recently took on a first-year graduate student named Nathan Flanders, to be co-advised by Prof. Lin Chen, a physical chemist also on staff at Argonne National Laboratory. “In a more traditional department, it would be unlikely that Nathan would work with both of us. Prof. Chen does advanced measurements with lasers and x-rays, and we make new materials,” Dichtel says. “It is an extra challenge for a student to learn both of these fields, but the benefit for doing so is enormous – exciting things emerge from this intimate mixing of disciplines.” Dichtel equates this concept to learning French from a book versus learning the language by traveling to Paris.

Build in time to share ideas outside of the lab, too. “There’s a longstanding tradition in the chemistry department of everyone eating lunch together,” Dichtel says. Every day, a conference room is reserved for individuals to gather and eat, and each Tuesday, a faculty member informally will present research. “This makes it really easy to chime in and talk about different ideas or say, ‘I’ve got a student working on something, you should meet,’” he says. “It underscores that the whole of all this talent working together is even greater than the sum of its parts.”

4. Plant your roots around the best talent and facilities 

When your specialty requires expertise from just about all the basic sciences, being close to top-notch labs and peers is a must.

For Chad Mirkin, the Director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology (IIN), proximity was crucial to his invention of spherical nucleic acid (SNA) technology. He charged one of his students to learn how to make DNA and tack it onto a particle surface.

“There was an emeritus professor here named Irv Klotz whom I ran into one afternoon in the halls,” Mirkin recalls. “I asked him how I could get my hands on DNA strands modified with anchoring groups that could be used to attach it to surfaces. And he told me I could either go to a store and buy it, or I could walk upstairs and talk to the man who invented it.”

That man, Robert (Bob) Letsinger, taught chemistry at Northwestern for 50 years and was a pioneer in developing the rapid method for chemical synthesis of DNA used worldwide today. Mirkin immediately sent his student to Letsinger to learn how to make a strand of DNA and the rest is history. Mirkin quickly used the DNA to synthesize and characterize the first spherical nucleic acids, and in the process established an entire new field.

On Friday afternoons, Mirkin encourages his students to try something “a little crazy” in the lab. One Friday many years after that initial discovery, one of his students decided to see what would happen when they added SNAs to a culture of cells. They discovered that the cells internalized nucleic acids when they are packaged into this spherical structure – unlike when they are formulated into other shapes. “This was a completely unexpected finding,” Mirkin says — and one that created a completely new research path that is now impacting many areas of biomedicine, especially gene regulation therapy.

Little things matter

Nanotechnology certainly is not simple, but these four steps underscore the conditions for driving innovation to tackle problems big and small. “You just have to keep pushing,” says Dichtel. “You have to let the science take you where it takes you, even if you have no idea where it’s going.”

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