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17 February 2010 NANO Magazine - Issue 16

Interview: Harold Craighead

Image Credit: NANO Magazine.

Harold Craighead, head of the Nanobiotechnology Center at Cornell, is considered to be one of the great international figures of the nanoscience revolution. He talks to Ottilia Saxl of NANO Magazine about Cornell’s early vision for supporting nanoscience research, his own role in realizing a netwokd of national centres to support nanoscience research, his particular commitment to using nanofabrication techniques to support Nan bioscience research, and how this has led to exciting new research directions.

OS: Cornell University seems to have carved a considerable reputation for itself in the field nanotechnology from an early date. Can you tell our readers something firstly about the history and development of the groundbreaking Nanofabrication Facility there, which you were involved with early on?

HC: The Cornell Nanoscale Facility (CNF), although now part of US National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network, was originally the ‘National Research and Resource Facility for Submicron Structures’, established in 1977, and better known as the ‘Submicron Facility’. I was a PhD student in Cornell at the time the faculty assembled the original proposal to the National Science Foundation. Even in these very early days, there were a number of faculty research groups in different departments working on nanostructures. My own thesis involved studying the optical properties of engineered systems of metallic nanoparticles, as potential solar collectors. Also uniquely at Cornell at that time, work on electron beam lithography for exploratory device fabrication was taking place.

The Submicron Facility was housed in a new state-of-the-art lab, Knight Lab, the highest tech building on campus. Ed Wolf, its first director, was largely responsible for its outward-looking mode of operation, encouraging the wider use of the lab and its facilities, both inside and outside of Cornell.

As the micrometer barrier was pushed aside, in 1987 the facility then became the National Nanofabrication Facility (NNF). At this time I was head of the Quantum Structures research group at Bellcore, and was using technologies similar to those in place at the NNF. I hadn’t planned to return to Cornell, but when Ed left, the position he vacated seemed a good a fit with my experience, and in 1989 I was appointed Director. During my tenure, the NNF expanded to become a network of fabrication facilities at five universities. Since then, the network has continued to evolve and expand to become an even larger network of nanofabrication facilities, right across the US, providing essential support for research and industry.

OS: You are now heading the prestigious Nanobiotechnology Center. When was that created, and what was the motivation for such a Center? Did it always look set for success?

HC: While Director of the NNF in the early 1990s, I was in a good position to see where the exciting areas of research lay, and soon became convinced of the potential of nanofabrication techniques for biology, as being a field that was ‘wide open’ for development. I also started moving my own research in this direction, organizing some local workshops to help explore new opportunities in this area.

In 1994, three of us - Lynn Jelinski, Director of the Cornell Biotechnology Center, Harvey Hoch, a plant pathologist who had used nanostructured surfaces in his research, and I - organised an international workshop on Nanofabrication and Biosystems. The motivation of the workshop was to expand the capabilities and community working in this new area. It in fact became a pivotal point in the decision to work toward the formal establishment of a Nanobiotechnology Center, and in 1998, Lynn and I led the original proposal to Cornell and the National Science Foundation to establish such a center.

My own research at that time was directed at examining new nanofabrication approaches in biosystems, and I was also involved in collaborative work such as single molecule DNA analysis and cell growth on nanostructured surfaces. As it turned out, these activities helped set the research agenda and formal establishment of the Nanobiotechnology Center. The official opening was in January 2000, at which time I became Director. I should point out that the work that led to the creation of the Center was prior to the initiation of the US National Nanotechnology Initiative!

OS: The Nanobiotechnology Centre at Cornell has a reputation for bringing together students from different backgrounds. What kinds of students do you choose? Are there other groups that you interface with? How do you facilitate communication between individuals / departments / other academic Institutions?

HC: The Center actively attracts a wide range of self-motivated and energetic students from different scientific and engineering backgrounds, who are eager to work in new areas and explore new techniques. We are keen to encourage entrepreneurship, and provide seed funding for applications that others are often reluctant to invest in – collaborative activities that require a combination of skills and capabilities from different disciplines.

Our Center is organised outside of the regular departmental structure, so we can work across traditional scientific and other boundaries. We foster communication by conventional means, such as seminars and workshops, but we also provide electronic connections among institutions to widen collaborative projects in education and research. We also offer courses and training to students and researchers with widely different backgrounds, to help them communicate with each other, and enable them to work together. Our researchers are frequently users of the Cornell Nano Fabrication facility, but our Center has developed specialised and dedicated facilities for biological uses.

OS: Do you think it will ever / has it ever been possible that a PhD project can be worked on by a team, rather than by an individual (as is the case in the ‘real world’?).

HC: I think it is certainly possible to have students work in interdisciplinary teams!

Our Center has worked to foster such collaborations and provide formal courses and training in laboratory techniques to make this as effective as possible. I think students are very receptive to these opportunities and the new possibilities offered by working at disciplinary boundaries. It is certainly possible for students to collaborate on projects - and to still have identifiable contributions to form theses in traditional disciplines. I believe that in this way we are producing students with skills that will serve them well as the next generation of researchers and educators, in an increasingly interdisciplinary environment.

OS: What is the attitude of your Center to linking to industrial companies? Is linking / collaborative work, a large or minor part of your strategy? Why?

HC: Industrial and academic institutions each have their separate roles in innovation and commercialization. Universities have a unique role in training students and exploring new basic research directions. Industry has a responsibility to bring new products to market as quickly as possible. Direct collaborative work is possible but the different missions of the participants are still relevant.

In our Center we have focused on establishing new capabilities and training students and postdoctoral researchers in new interdisciplinary areas. These individuals have become highly soughtafter by high-tech companies. I think we also have been effective in fostering the entrepreneurial spirit in our students and postdocs, and this has impacted on commercial enterprises through start-up activity. I do believe that the direct involvement of the researchers who are involved in the discoveries is important for moving new concepts and technological capabilities into commercial use. For example, one of my former PhD students, Steve Turner, and I formed a company, Nanofluidics Inc. in 2001. It became Pacific Biosciences and is commercializing a nanostructure-based approach for high-speed DNA sequencing. I believe it is sometimes necessary to create a company in order to have a vehicle to develop a completely new technology approach, and we support our students in this.

OS: Compared with many academic institutions in Europe, in the US there appears to be a large and consistent emphasis on outreach. How does this work in practice in the Nanobiotechnology Center, in relation to undergraduate and postgraduate students, and making links with teachers and the population at large?

HC: The U.S. National Science Foundation provides funding to centres as a matter of course, for programs aimed at children directly, or through training and resources for teachers. In the Nanobiotechnology Center we recruit graduates and undergraduates to participate in these activities, and be ambassadors to the younger students. We also make an effort to translate our research efforts and goals into a form that can be communicated to the public at large.

One of our most wide-reaching efforts involved a collaboration with Ithaca Sciencenter, our local science museum. The result was a travelling exhibit on nanotechnology, designed for 8-13 yearolds, that toured the US.

It is a real challenge to translate the nanodevices and nanotechnologies into something that connects with the experiences of most people! Something like the nanoscale guitar, made by electron beam lithography, did connect research on nanomechanics with members of the public, in an iconic way.

OS: Can you tell us now about your experience in industry, and whether it shaped your approach to working in the University? In what ways has it made a difference?

HC: I think my experience may have been helpful in understanding the needs of industry, and having experience of R&D in industrial and academic settings may have provided a useful perspective on what works in each. I think this has been translated into in providing better guidance to students, and in developing more appropriate training programs for students who aim to join industrial R&D efforts.

OS: You have been ‘in command’ at the Nanobiotechnology Center for some time. What is your particular philosophy as its Director? What actions have you been able to implement that have given you particular pleasure over the years?

HC: I don’t think the concept of “command” and academic creativity work well together!

My philosophy as director has rather been to help bring together innovative and motivated researchers and to try to eliminate barriers to their success. Perhaps occasionally one is allowed to make suggestions about opportunities or new possibilities!

OS: Finally, what would you still like to achieve, and what would you like to think your legacy will be in the future?

HC: The concept of research at the nanobiointerface is now a well-established one – which was certainly not the case just over a decade ago! Much of the work in our Center (and elsewhere) has been in using our scientific and engineering techniques for a better understanding of basic biology, and the natural evolution of this understanding and capability is its exciting impact in new applications.

For example, within the Nanobiotechnology Center at Cornell, we recently established a Physical Sciences – Oncology Center. Here we are working alongside medical doctors, using our skills in micro and nanofabrication and cell growth to represent natural systems in the body, enabling a different approach to the exploration of cancer, and its possible treatments. See

The Center is also active in using similar techniques to support exploiting nanobiotechnology in an effort to find new ways for using plants to produce energy, industrial chemicals and green materials.

See here.

Perhaps a desirable legacy for me would be to have made some impact on research directions and applications that contribute positively to society


Harold Craighead received his PhD in Physics from Cornell University in 1980 based on an early study of the deposition of engineered metal nanoparticles for solar collection applications.

He then joined the Device Physics Research Department of Bell Laboratories in1979, and from 1984 until 1989 was Research Manager of the Quantum Structures Research Group at Bellcore. From this accumulated experience, Dr Craighead was a prime contender for the vacant position of Director of the National Nanofabrication Facility at Cornell which he held from 1989 to 1995.

This position provided an insight into the potential of nanofabrication for the biological sciences, and encouraged Dr Craighead and a colleague to lead a bid to Cornell and the National Science Foundation to fund what was then a groundbreaking Nanobiotechnology Center. Since the establishment of the Center in 2000, Dr Craighead has served as its director, creating an international model for interdisciplinary scientific research. Apart from publishing over 280 papers, Dr Craighead has also been closely involved with a start up company, Nanofluidics (now Pacific Biosciences), which today employs over 250 people.

Knowledge of nanofabrication and life sciences led Dr Craighead to initiate an exploration of how nanofabrication techniques may help model and treat cancer, and to this end a Physical Science – Oncology Center has been established, within the Nanobiotechnology Center. Similarly, the Center brings its nanofabrication and cell growth techniques to bear in support of a major body of work on the study of plants for the production of energy, industrial chemicals and green materials.

Source: NANO Magazine - Issue 16 /...

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