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Interview: Nanoscale superhero
13 May 2010
Francesco Stellacci is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, US, but is about to move to the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, Switzerland. His research interests are focused on the study of surface phenomena in supramolecular assemblies, in particular when applied as coatings on nanoscale materials. He is also editor-in-chief at the North American office for Nanoscale.
Who or what inspired you to become a scientist?
Growing up in Italy in the 1970s I watched lots of Japanese cartoons. There's always a robot that is driven by a pilot who is the hero. The pilot is a super-athletic guy who saves the world from alien invasion or attacks. Most children want to be the superhero who saves the world, but very early on I understood that I didn't have the physical skills to do any of that. If the world had to depend on my physical skill we would be toast! But in these cartoons there is also always a scientist who built the robot. So I thought I could be the scientist instead. I decided that when I was a child, before I even understood what it meant, but it stayed with me and that spirit of childishly trying to save the world has never left me. I like the broader goals of my research to be good for mankind.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
We work a lot on projects that involve nanoparticles and in general solid liquid interfaces. So the hottest thing to do right now is to use nanoparticles for the environment - to do things that are good to clean up contaminated soil or water - or for catalysis and medical applications, such as drug delivery.
Do you see environmental nanoscience as a hot area for the future?
Nanoscience started and developed in what were perceived as being the hottest fields, electronics, biology and medicine. And now I think it is now time for it to branch out to many other areas and environmental nanoscience is one of those areas.
When is the last time you were in the lab doing an experiment?
I am in the lab as often as I can, because I find that discussion with my students in the lab is somehow more profitable than in my office or theirs in front of a PowerPoint presentation and also because I think it's beneficial to see samples and see measurements going on. Some time ago I still had the pretentions that I could actually help my students in the lab, but now the science in my group has progressed so much that I honestly slow them down. It's been a long time since I've been in the lab doing an experiment.
Do you miss it?
I miss it now less than I thought I would. When I was a student and a post-doc I was a 'lab animal' and I feared that by being a professor I would be in the lab less and less. I missed it at the beginning of my career a lot, and right now if I had the chance to be in the lab for a year or two I would do it. But I can't be an effective group leader or professor in an effective way and be in the lab as well. If I were in the lab, I wouldn't be paying attention to one of my students, I would be paying attention to one of my experiments and in the end my students are more important than my experiments.
If you weren't a scientist what would you be?
I don't know there are many other things that I like! I think being a scientist is one of the greatest jobs you can have, because of the fact that it allows you to exercise your creativity, the fact you don't have a boss, and you are always with young people. I think that the number one job that I would think of doing would be the one that comes from the same spirit of being a scientist and that is a politician. I would still like to save the world.
Francesco Stellacci's homepage
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, US
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Supramolecular replication of peptide and DNA patterned arrays
Anna Laromaine, Ozge Akbulut, Francesco Stellacci and Molly M. Stevens, J. Mater. Chem., 2010, 20, 68
Fabrication of biomolecular devices via supramolecular contact-based approaches
Ozge Akbulut, Arum Amy Yu and Francesco Stellacci, Chem. Soc. Rev., 2010, 39, 30
Ultra-fast and scalable sidewall functionalisation of single-walled carbon nanotubes with carboxylic acid
Brenda Long, Tan Man Wu and Francesco Stellacci, Chem. Commun., 2008, 2788
Water-soluble amphiphilic gold nanoparticles with structured ligand shells
Oktay Uzun, Ying Hu, Ayush Verma, Suelin Chen, Andrea Centrone and Francesco Stellacci, Chem. Commun., 2008, 196
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