Rice’s Naomi Halas to direct Smalley Institute

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Rice’s Naomi Halas to direct Smalley Institute

Optics pioneer will lead Rice’s multidisciplinary science institute 

HOUSTON — (Jan. 15, 2015) — Rice University today named nanotechnology pioneer Naomi Halas director of the Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology. Halas, one of Rice’s most cited and renowned researchers, said she plans to expand the institute’s scope, engage more faculty and students and foster new collaborations at the frontiers of science.

“The landscape in science changes year by year,” Halas said. “Many exciting efforts that define the frontier of science in 2015 have emerged in the last five years. It’s important for us to broaden our scope in order to build on and communicate that excitement and to stay engaged, not only with our local intellectual community but with our regional and national communities as well.”

Naomi Halas has been named director of Rice's Smalley Institute

Halas, one of the foremost experts in nanophotonics, is Rice’s Stanley C. Moore Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering and a professor of biomedical engineering, chemistry and physics and astronomy. She is the director of the Rice Quantum Institute (RQI) and is the first person in the university’s history to be elected to both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering for research done at Rice.

“As the director of the Smalley Institute, Naomi Halas is going to bring both vision and energy to the organization’s research, education and outreach efforts,” said Rice Provost George McLendon. “Rice has a rich history of solving difficult problems in advanced materials, quantum magnetism, plasmonics, photonics, biophysics, ultracold atomic physics, condensed matter, chemical physics and all areas of nanoscience and nanotechnology. Dr. Halas will be in a unique position to foster Rice’s continued success and leadership in all of those areas.”

Halas succeeds Dan Mittleman, professor of electrical and computer engineering, who has been serving as interim director of the institute since 2012.

Halas was recruited to Rice by Smalley Institute namesake Rick Smalley. She said it is an honor to direct the interdisciplinary research institutes Smalley founded at Rice. Smalley shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Rice University Professor Emeritus Robert Curl and Florida State University Professor Harold Kroto for the discovery of carbon fullerenes at Rice in 1985.

“Nano, as fostered by the National Nanotechnology Initiative, was a resounding success,” Halas said. “Nano is everywhere now, in virtually all disciplines, and has become a foundation that enables us to both envision and conduct research in entirely new ways. Nano is an essential foundation for our scientific and technological futures.”

She said that from their inception, the Rice Quantum Institute and the Smalley Institute were designed to foster research at the frontiers of science.

“Rick was always keenly aware that science is a rapidly evolving and highly dynamic enterprise and that research at Rice grew and developed in a very interdisciplinary and cross-cutting way,” Halas said. “As we move forward, we can always anticipate the unanticipated — new discoveries, surprising insights, entirely new fields emerging from our research.”

Halas said Rice Quantum Institute and the Smalley Institute serve essentially the same broad community of fundamental and applied physical sciences at Rice, with a focus on emerging materials, their properties and applications. She said there are many new opportunities for new initiatives and for coordinated programs with common goals. She also said the institutes’ directions and activities will be driven by their faculty membership.

“It is important to make sure all voices are included,” she said. “The reason for an institute in the first place is to foster and enhance the research experience for everyone in this broad area.

“Research is a communications-dependent enterprise, and we work best when we interact more,” she said. “I believe in the Steve Jobs vision: He constructed buildings where people were literally forced to run into one other and interact on a daily basis. We can emulate that at Rice. Developing more reasons for researchers to bump into each another will make even more exciting things happen — to ensure that we all ‘stay hungry, stay foolish,’ as Steve would say.”

Halas said one of the most important things that the Rice Quantum Institute has established is its annual research colloquium.

“Even though that takes place in the middle of the summer, it has become a very popular, well-attended and essential activity for the broader physical sciences research community at Rice,” she said. “Bringing more opportunities year-round for faculty, postdocs and graduate students to communicate, interact and showcase their work, and to learn from each other, will also be part of the equation for the Smalley Institute. Interaction enhances everyone.”

Halas said other institutes at Rice serve as a great example for what she envisions for RQI and the Smalley Institute.

“The Ken Kennedy Institute (for Information Technology) is an excellent model for a university research institute,” she said. “They are in a very different field, but they have developed a community where people know well what each other are doing and can very easily connect. New topics can emerge, just because of the way people interact with one another.”

To foster pioneering research, Halas said she plans to expand the scope of the Smalley Institute’s efforts.

“The traditional areas that were defined by RQI include condensed matter physics, atomic and molecular physics, optics, materials, physical chemistry, inorganic chemistry and soft condensed matter,” she said. “What the Smalley Institute brought to this was a natural extension into new types of applications. If you look at the Smalley Institute’s members, you will find people who are working on engineering problems using tools from nanotechnology.

“One of the visions for coordinating the efforts of RQI and the Smalley Institute is to foster these efforts and expand them to engage the broader community.”

Halas joined Rice’s faculty in 1990. Her lab specializes in studying how light interacts with engineered nanoparticles. Her research spans a broad spectrum from electromagnetic theory to chemical nanofabrication. She and her colleagues have created and studied dozens of new varieties of nanoparticles that are engineered to interact with light in specific ways, often to perform a function in unique applications that have societal and technological impact, including cancer treatment, sanitation, water purification and optoelectronics.

She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Materials Research Society, the Optical Society, the American Physical Society, the International Society for Optical Engineering and the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

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IMAGES:
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CAPTION: Naomi Halas
CREDIT: Rice University

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About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.