Chad Mirkin, director of the Institute for Nanotechnology, is spearheading the establishment of Northwestern as one of the leading nanotech research centers in the world.

Photo by Bill Arsenault

Mirkin Key Force Behind Nano at Northwestern
Fortunately for the field of nanoscience, Chad Mirkin hates the sight of blood.

“Growing up, I had no interest whatsoever in science specifically,” says Mirkin, now a chemist who has helped bring Northwestern to the forefront of nanotechnology. “When I got to college, I considered going to medical school — until I realized through a hospital rotation that I couldn’t stand the sight of blood.”

Instead he came to love chemistry while in graduate school at Pennsylvania State University. Mirkin, George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry, pursued his doctorate with the boundless energy he is known for, speeding through in two years and 11 months. “I didn’t do much else,” he says, laughing.

His next stop was MIT for a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellowship. When Mirkin joined Northwestern in 1991, he put his knowledge of chemistry, physics and biology to work on the new challenge of building structures on the 1-to-100 nanometer length scale.

Mirkin, director of the Institute for Nanotechnology, now builds nanoscale devices that could have a dramatic impact on the medical profession he decided against. His simplified DNA detection technology, which takes advantage of gold nanoparticles and precision DNA patterning, could lead to 100,000 diagnostic tests for diseases being packed into an area the size of a hypodermic needle’s tip.

Such a high-density gene chip is a possibility because of a clever invention of Mirkin’s: the world’s smallest pen. He turned a common laboratory instrument, called an atomic force microscope, into a writing instrument, which works much like the centuries-old quill pen. Dip-pen nanolithography allows Mirkin to use an AFM tip as a pen and different single-stranded DNA as inks. “By taking advantage of DNA and nanoscale materials functionalized with complementary DNA as chemical building blocks that recognize one another, we should be able to build an electronic circuit, a biological or chemical sensor, a catalyst or a transistor from the bottom up, instead of the top down,” says Mirkin.

Building such complex structures requires collaboration, which is what attracted Mirkin to Northwestern. “The culture at many universities is for scientists to work as individual entities,” Mirkin says. “Northwestern is just different — and better.”

Lydia Villa-Komaroff, Northwestern vice president for research, says Mirkin is a key force behind the University’s position as a world leader in nanotechnology. “Chad is a remarkably talented chemist who knows how to set his sights high,” she says. “He’s energetic and has worked with both his scientific colleagues and the administration to make Northwestern an excellent center for nanotechnology research.”

Mirkin, whose father worked for the U.S. Peace Corps and later as a federal judge, credits his upbringing with preparing him for the intellectual diversity he now thrives on. His family traveled a tremendous amount, living for a year in Malaysia and two in Korea and then moving nearly every year until they settled in a coal-mining region of Pennsylvania when Mirkin was 11. “I’ve always felt very comfortable working with different types of people and cultures and collaborating across boundaries,” he says. “With respect to science, and nanotechnology in particular, that’s very important.” — M.F.

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