Rice’s Naomi Halas awarded Optica’s C.E.K. Mees Medal

Researcher recognized for “original use of optics across multiple fields”

Naomi Halas

Rice University’s Naomi Halas has been selected as the 2024 recipient of the C.E.K. Mees Medal by Optica for “her design, fabrication, and demonstration of nanoparticles with specific optical and physical properties, the widespread application of which enables advances in fields including cancer therapy, water security, and light-driven chemistry.”

Naomi Halas
Naomi Halas is Rice University Professor and Stanley C. Moore Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

Halas’ groundbreaking work in nanotechnology has enabled the creation of metal nanoparticles possessing structural features designed to interact with light in specific ways that can be deployed in a variety of contexts, including biomedicine, optoelectronics, chemical sensing, catalysis, and water treatment.

“The idea of using light to drive chemical transformations is by no means new, but we needed to have the right platform ⎯ the right type of nanoparticle complex ⎯ to actually make the chemistry happen,” Halas said. “Two of the major applications of our work are for photothermal cancer therapy and plasmonic photocatalysis for hydrogen production.”

Halas is a co-founder of Nanospectra Biosciences, a nanomedicine company whose prostate cancer treatment technology is currently undergoing review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and of Syzygy Plasmonics, which builds light-driven all-electric chemical reactors for affordable greenhouse gas reduction and hydrogen fuel production.

“It just goes to show how important optics and light-based applications are,” Halas said. “Every time people begin to apply light to an interesting problem and really find a solution, it is often very transformative. Optics really can have a profound impact on many different fields, which is why research in this area is often so cross-cutting. It’s exciting to be working in this area at this historical juncture, when we are looking to solve urgent problems in energy and medicine.”

Halas obtained her doctorate in physics from Bryn Mawr College, and, having performed her graduate research at IBM Yorktown, she then served as a postdoctoral fellow at AT&T Bell Laboratories. The first Rice faculty member to be elected to both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering for research carried out while at the university, Halas was named University Professor, Rice’s highest academic rank, in 2023.

In addition to this year’s C.E.K. Mees Medal, Halas was named an Optica Fellow in 2004 and received the organization’s 2015 R.W. Wood Prize, with Peter Nordlander, Wiess Chair in Physics and Astronomy, and a professor of electrical and computer engineering, and materials science and nanoengineering at Rice.

“What was really wonderful about receiving the Wood Prize was that my IBM thesis advisor, Daniel Grischkowsky, had won it, and his thesis advisor, Sven Hartman, had been awarded it as well,” Halas said. “It was touching to me that three generations of researchers, decades apart, were awarded the same distinction.”

The Mees Medal, which recognizes an original use of optics across multiple fields, honors the memory of Charles Edward Kenneth Mees (1882-1960), whose optics research and innovation helped advance color photography, spectroscopy and astronomy. Mees contributed preeminently and in multiple ways to the development of scientific photography, and was a charter honorary member of Optica (then Optical Society of America). As the Mees Medal recipient, Halas joins a distinguished genealogy of researchers whose work has been critical for the development of optics, enabling its contribution to advancements in a growing number of scientific domains.

Optica, Advancing Optics and Photonics Worldwide, is the society dedicated to promoting the generation, application, archiving and dissemination of knowledge in the field. Founded in 1916, it is the leading organization for scientists, engineers, business professionals, students and others interested in the science of light. Optica’s renowned publications, meetings, online resources and in-person activities fuel discoveries, shape real-life applications and accelerate scientific, technical and educational achievement.

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CAPTION: Naomi Halas is Rice University Professor and Stanley C. Moore Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)


Halas Research Group: https://halas.rice.edu/

Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering: https://eceweb.rice.edu/

Department of Chemistry: https://chemistry.rice.edu/

Department of Bioengineering: https://bioengineering.rice.edu/

Department of Physics and Astronomy: https://physics.rice.edu/

Department of Materials Science and Nanoengineering: https://msne.rice.edu/

Smalley-Curl Institute: https://sci.rice.edu/