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Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Faculty Profile: Mark Hersam, PhD, Professor of Medicine-Pulmonary, McCormick School of Engineering, and the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences

Mark Hersam, PhD

In September, materials scientist Mark Hersam, PhD, professor in Medicine-Pulmonary, the McCormick School of Engineering, and the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, received an impressive nod to his research career when he was named a MacArthur Fellow. The five-year, $625,000 unrestricted grant goes to exceptionally creative, dedicated individuals.

Since joining Northwestern University in 2000, Hersam has indeed proven dedicated to his crafts: investigating nanomaterials and teaching. His approach to research is interdisciplinary, drawing on techniques from materials science, physics, engineering, and chemistry. He is a leading experimentalist in hybrid organic-inorganic materials, with a focus on the study of the electrical and optical properties of carbon and related nanomaterials.

In addition to his faculty appointments, Hersam is director of Northwestern’s Materials Research Center and a member of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University.


What are your research interests?

My laboratory is interested in the preparation, characterization, and application of one-dimensional and two-dimensional nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes and graphene, respectively. One of the unique attributes of nanomaterials (compared to bulk macroscopic materials) is that their properties depend upon size. Consequently, strategies for controlling structure at or near the atomic scale allow new properties to be realized. The size-dependence of properties also implies that the purity of nanomaterials needs to be exceptionally high in order to realize reproducible performance in applications. Consequently, much of our work is focused on developing scalable purification methods.

What is the ultimate goal of your research?

Ultimately, we want to realize atomically precise, high purity nanomaterials in sufficient quantities to impact real-world applications. Examples of applications that we are actively pursuing include electronics, solar cells, and batteries. We have worked extensively with collaborators at Feinberg on methods for minimizing the toxicity of nanomaterials, thus opening possibilities for biomedical applications such as imaging contrast agents, sensors, and drug delivery vehicles.

How does your research advance medical science and knowledge?

The purity of our nanomaterials coupled with our ability to tailor the surface chemistry of nanomaterials allows toxicity to be minimized and thus facilitates the development of biomedical applications.

What types of collaborations are you engaged in across campus?

We collaborate extensively across campus (and at other institutions) with faculty members in chemistry, molecular biosciences, physics, engineering, and medicine. Specific examples in the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine include Scott Budinger, MD, Gokhan Mutlu, MD, Harris Perlman, PhD, and Ramille Shah, PhD.

How is your research funded? 

We are funded by several federal and nonfederal sources including the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, Office of Naval Research, NASA, and the W. M. Keck Foundation.

Where have you recently published papers? 

We regularly publish in the following journals: Nature Nanotechnology, Nature Chemistry, Nature Communications, Nano Letters, Advanced Materials, and ACS Nano.

Which honors are you most proud of and why? 

I am most proud of being named Teacher of the Year in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering on six separate occasions. I believe that a professor’s number one job is to be an educator, and thus teaching honors have high personal meaning to me.

What do you enjoy about teaching/mentoring young scientists in the lab?

Young people bring many desirable attributes to a laboratory: ambition, urgency, creativity, and nearly endless energy. Working with young scientists hopefully helps keep me young and is certainly my favorite part of being a professor.