Meet Harold Craighead!
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to explore phenomena tinier than the width of a human hair? We have interviewed Harold Craighead, Professor of Applied & Engineering Physics at Cornell University. Craighead has been a pioneer in nanofabrication methods and the application of engineered nanosystems for research and device applications.
Q: When did you first find that your career path focused on nanotechnology?
Craighead: It was during my Ph.D. thesis, around 1975 — in the previously century. I did my thesis on optical properties of small metal particles imbedded in insulators. Back then, we just called them small metal particles, but they were tens of nanometer diameter particles that had altered optical properties because of their size, and we used those for a variety of applications, including solar energy collectors. That was well before there was the national nanotechnology initiative, or even before the word “nanotechnology” was commonly used, but my initial experience in research was actually in what we today call nanotechnology and plasmonics.
Q: What current nanotechnology applications are you working on?
Craighead: Actually, my entire career, following my thesis research I have been working on various forms on nanotechnology, initially grown particles and etched rods, but then I worked on lithographic approaches, that made some of the smallest electronic devices. After working at Bell Labs and Bellcore, I moved to Cornell, where I began using the capabilities that came from electronic device fabrication, for biotechnology and bioanalytical devices. When we began this work we termed it nanobiotechnology. So my research has moved towards bio-inspired and bio-analytical devices, using concepts that came from our IEEE community.
Q: What’s the most rewarding thing about working with nanotechnology?
Craighead: I think the nano area — and research in general — is always pushing into the unknown. So in this field you’re always learning new things and figuring out how to use this new information to do something useful. I think, it just happened that my directions were in nanotechnology, but I think the answer is probably the same for most people who are inspired by exploring new research areas. I’ve used nanostructure engineering as a vehicle to approach new areas of science and device applications.
Q: Is there an example you can provide that shows how something you’ve worked on has positively impacted the world?
Craighead: I guess some of the things I’ve done have provided new fabrication and manufacturing capabilities. I have worked on lithographic approaches that have helped improve our ability to design and manufacture small objects — so that may have been a small contribution to the overall technologies that are being employed in modern electronics. I think part of my motivation for using these related technologies to these biological systems is using these for medical diagnostic devices. So, one of the things I am currently working on is to use these for more compact and cheap medical diagnostics. We have had some success in DNA sequencing methods that are now in commercial products and I am now working on methods of reading epigenetic information from single chromosomes for the study of cancer and engineering nucleic acids molecules for use in medical devices and treatment.
Q: What do you think is the single greatest impact nanotechnology has had on the world thus far?
Craighead: I think the greatest impact has been in electronics. That may be not what everyone thinks nanotechnology is, but I think that’s the real technology that’s been impacted the greatest by working at the nanoscale. It has enabled enormous changes in our electronics, much of what I see sitting on the table here, our computers, and recorders, and cell phones, and cameras, so I think that’s undoubtedly had an impact on people’s lives. It’s been an evolutionary advance as we follow Moore’s law, but I think that’s been the most dramatic real technology application that I’ve seen.
Q: Please give an example of what you envision nanotechnology applications leading to in the future.
Craighead: I think that in the future we will probably make even greater use of nanotechnology; perhaps involving new approaches to data storage and displays. I also expect to see broader impact in other aspects of our lives from physical, chemical and biological sensors. I expect biomedical applications will grow dramatically, but I think that nanotechnology continue to be a driver of advances in consumer electronics.
Q: Do you find yourself working more in a team situation, or more alone?
Craighead: Oh, certainly in teams. There’s no question about that. In fact I work almost always with interdisciplinary teams, these days.
Q: If you work more as a team, what are some of the other areas of expertise of your team members?
Craighead: Team members come from many disciplines — chemistry, biology (those are both very broad fields, it includes cell biology, molecular biology, surface chemistry, immunology), in addition to mechanical engineering and electrical engineering. We work in very broad, very intellectually diverse groups these days.
Q: Did your university training help you in your nanotechnology work?
Craighead: Yes, in my case it has directly applied. My undergraduate training was in physics, which I think is at the core of electrical engineering, and so that’s provided a solid base on which I’ve always built. This background also provides a problem-solving approach that one can use in other areas, so the university education and training has been absolutely critical.
Q: Do you have a mentor? Did you in your college years?
Craighead: Not just a single one. There have been faculty members and co-workers at various stages of my career that I found influential or helpful, and I think the university and industrial research environments that I’ve been in have been very supportive and intellectually stimulating.
Q: If you had to do it all over again, would you still focus on nanotechnology applications?
Craighead: Yes, there are many possible paths to interesting careers, but I think the one that I found has been rewarding, so I probably wouldn’t change it. That’s not to say there wouldn’t have been some other equally rewarding other path, but I don’t know what it would be, and I’m satisfied with the one that I took.
Q: If a high school or college student was interested in nanotechnology, what advice would you give them to help prepare take on those roles?
Craighead: I’d just say, study math and science. Those are the core disciplines to focus on. From there one can go in many directions. By the time today’s young students are my age, the world will have changed dramatically and nanotechnology may be passé. So, studying the basics such as math and science is important, that’s really what everything else is based on. It’s hard to predict where we’ll be in twenty years. So if we had a course in nanotechnology today, it’s undoubtedly going to be out of date twenty years from now. I don’t think it’s particularly critical that we have a high-school level, age-specific nanotechnology course. By the way, I do teach a freshman course in nanotechnology, but I guess I’m not so concerned that we don’t have lower level degrees specifically in nanotechnology. My advice to the current students would be, use nanotechnology as an inspiration and consider an engineering career, but to begin with, study the basics of math and science. Become well-grounded in those basics, and then that will be a platform on which your research, understanding, applications, and jobs will be based. I would say, the most important thing is follow your interests and where you think your skills are. Don’t worry too much about what’s going to happen in twenty or thirty years, because that’s hard to predict. I’d say study math, and whatever subjects that you find interesting: physics, chemistry, biology, or computers — whatever it is. Just do what’s of interest, but consider the basics, because the applications will change.
Q: Were you interested in science or engineering as a child? What was your experience then?
Craighead: As near as I can tell I was born interested in science and technology. I suppose it was biology first because this was most available and as collected insects, salamanders, snakes, and all sorts of small critters. When a little older I started soldering together vacuum-tube electronics and building model airplanes and rockets. I started building things and tinkering with devices at an early age and I haven’t stopped yet. Maybe now I’ve come full circle and now making more devices to study biology, living cells and molecules.
Q: What prompted you to join IEEE?
Craighead: I have worked in electronics-based industry and heavily utilized techniques developed for microelectronics in my research. The IEEE is a society that fosters technology development and new application of engineered devices. It seems like a natural community for me.