Rice scientist recognized for stellar work on nanoparticles, cell membranes

CONTACT: Jade Boyd
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EMAIL: jadeboyd@rice.edu

Rice scientist recognized for stellar work on nanoparticles, cell membranes
The Welch Foundation honors ‘rising star’ with $100,000 Hackerman Award

The Welch Foundation today awarded its prestigious Hackerman Award to Rice University scientist Jason Hafner ’96, who was named this year’s “rising star” for his innovative chemical research. Hafner’s discoveries include a new type of nanostructure called gold nanostars, which are proving useful for sensing, imaging and medicine, and the first method for measuring large electrical fields inside cell membranes.

“I’ve always known I wanted to be a scientist; nothing gets me more excited than figuring out how things work,” said Hafner, an assistant professor in chemistry and in physics and astronomy. “To be recognized for doing what I love – especially with an award named after Norman Hackerman, a man who gave so much to science – is a very special honor.”

Hafner will be presented the award and an accompanying prize of $100,000 at a luncheon today.

“Dr. Hafner is known for approaching questions from unusual angles,” said Ernest H. Cockrell, chair of The Welch Foundation. “His creative thinking, careful experiments and willingness to tap into research tools from a variety of disciplines have led to breakthroughs in several areas and epitomize the type of scientist this award was created to recognize.”

Hafner began developing his interest in applying nanomaterials and nanoscale tools to study biological systems while he was a graduate student studying with Rice Nobel laureate Richard Smalley.

Half physicist and half chemist, Hafner studies how to modify the surface chemistry of metal nanoparticles to affect how they grow and how they interact with living cells. This is important because the resulting size and shape of the nanoparticles determine their optical properties. In this process, he created gold nanostars, a complex new structure whose many elongated points absorb and scatter light at varying wavelengths. Hafner has mapped the optical properties of the stars and how they may be used for imaging (by scattering light) and sensing (by tracking changes in optical properties caused by the environment). The gold nanostars also are expected to have important therapeutic applications.

On the analytical front, Hafner is using the tip of an atomic force microscope to detect the large electrical field inside lipid membranes, where most of the cell’s work is done. Created by molecular dipoles, this membrane property is thought to be important, but its biological role is largely unexplored because it is difficult to measure. Hafner has mapped the spatial variation of the dipole moment of membranes, and he is now trying to see how that membrane parameter may affect the interactions of small biomolecules with the membrane. In a related effort, he also hopes to develop a more traditional optical method to measure the dipole moment so that it may be studied more broadly.

Other analytical research involves applying his expertise with nanomaterials, surface chemistry and optics to make surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy, or SERS, a more reliable and quantitative tool.

“Jason is an example of the best of today’s researchers – those men and women who work across disciplinary boundaries to pursue interesting problems, using persistence, thoughtfully designed experiments, smart thinking and an open mind to find the answers,” said James Kinsey, chair of The Welch Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Board and Rice’s D.R. Bullard-Welch Foundation Professor Emeritus of Science in the Department of Chemistry. “He also gives back to science beyond his own research as an inspiring teacher and mentor to the next generations of scientists.”

A Texas native, Hafner grew up south of Dallas and earned an undergraduate degree in physics at Trinity University. After graduate school at Rice, he completed postdoctoral work at Harvard University before returning to Rice as a faculty member in 2001.

The Hackerman Award is named in honor of Norman Hackerman, a former Rice president, noted scientist and long-time chair of The Welch Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Board. The Hackerman Award is presented annually to young scientists conducting basic research in chemistry in Texas.

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