The Virginia Tech College of Science continues its J. Mark Sowers Distinguished Lecture Series with Professor Naomi J. Halas of Rice University, who is famed for her breakthrough research creating novel nanoparticles and studying their interactions with light.

Halas is the Stanley C. Moore Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering and a professor of biomedical engineering, chemistry, physics, and astronomy, and founding director of the Laboratory for Nanophotonics and director of the Rice Quantum Institute, all based at Rice, in Houston, Texas. She also is co-founder of Nanospectra Biosciences, a company that develops photothermal therapies for cancer treatment, as well as Eureka Sun, a startup pursuing commercial applications of solar steam generation.

Her talk will take place 7:30 p.m., Feb. 23 at 190 Goodwin Hall, Quillen Auditorium. The event is free and open to the public. 

“The faculty and students of the nanoscience degree program are excited about the visit of Dr. Halas,” said Randy Heflin, program leader of nanoscience, part of the Academy of Science within the College of Science. “She is one of the world leaders in the field of plasmonics, which are the extremely strong optical resonances of metallic nanoparticles. Her work also extends to cancer diagnostics and therapy to highly sensitive chemical detection to solar energy harvesting. This is a wonderful opportunity to hear about her work and discuss with her the future directions of nanoscience and nanotechnology.”

Halas will focus on solar steam generation and applications. In this discovery by Halas, a class of nanoparticles can convert a broad spectrum of sunlight to instantly vaporize water and create steam. This efficient light-generated process can impact solar energy harvesting, with the goal of producing steam directly for off-grid uses throughout the world. This discovery is part of solar-powered sterilization technology supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The heat and pressure created by the steam was sufficient to kill not only living microbes, but also viruses.

“Sanitation technology isn’t glamorous, but it’s a matter of life and death for 2.5 billion people,” Halas has said.

Halas was elected to the National Academy of Inventors in 2015, the National Academy of Engineering in 2014, the National Academy of Sciences in 2013, and elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009.

Her research of gold nanoshells illustrates the potential of gold nanoparticles for a variety of uses, including a project carried out by the Virginia Tech Department of Chemistry and biotech firm CytImmune Sciences using gold nanoparticles to deliver anticancer drugs directly to tumors.

Halas’ talk is the second of five in the Sowers lecture series for 2017. The series is funded by J. Mark Sowers, a Richmond, Virginia-based businessman and developer and longtime supporter of the college.

The series is designed to serve as a forum to exchange new and innovative ideas in scientific fields, including physics, nanotechnology, and neuroscience. It builds off several science-based symposiums held several years ago within the college.

David Reitze, physicist and executive director of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory Project at Cal Tech, or LIGO for short, gave the debut Sowers lecture series talk Feb 1.

Sowers said he has long been a fan of science, in particular physics, and funding the lecture series is an effort to share that love with others.

“When I was in high school, I signed up for physics,” said Sowers. “I had no idea what physics was. In fact, I thought it was civics or something like that and wasn’t very excited about it. But after the first day, I knew this was my passion. It was as if physics defined me.”

Giti Khodaparast, associate professor in the Department of Physics, who is helping to host Halas’ visit called the Rice scientist “a great mentor for diverse groups of students.”

Sally C. Morton, dean of the College of Science, has said the lecture series “is part of our college vision of science excellence, discovery, diversity of both people and ideas, and Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech’s motto. Bringing these scientists to the New River Valley community is an excellent way to bring together our neighbors in a joint pursuit of scientific knowledge and understanding.”

A program committee for the series is comprised of faculty from the college’s Department of Physics, the Academy of Integrated Science, and the School of Neuroscience at Virginia Tech. This group developed and recruited the guest lecturers for the 2017 series.

Upcoming guests in the lecture series are:

  • Arthur B. McDonald, professor emeritus of physics, engineering physics, and astronomy at Queen’s University in Montreal and a 2015 Nobel Prize winner in physics, April 27;
  • Nigel D. Goldenfeld, holder of the Center for Advanced Study Professorship and Swanlund Endowed Chair at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Sept. 14; and
  • J. David Sweatt, chair of the Department of Pharmacology at Vanderbilt University, Sept. 26.

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