RACHEL SHEREMETA PEPLING
What does a seventh-generation Texan miss when in Boston? Mexican food. "I have not found a fresh tortilla in Boston yet," claims Angela M. Belcher, John Chipman Associate Professor of Materials Science & Engineering & Bioengineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Belcher officially became a faculty member at MIT on Sept. 1 after spending three years as an assistant professor at the University of Texas, Austin.
Belcher originally intended to enter the field of medicine. As a freshman premed student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, however, Belcher discovered her interest in molecules. "I realized that I was much more interested in a much smaller scale than that of the whole organism," she explains.
|COURTESY OF ANGELA BELCHER
She pursued her fascination with molecules and in 1991 received a B.A. degree in creative studies with an emphasis on biochemistry and molecular biology. Belcher remained at UCSB for her graduate studies, researching interfaces between organic and inorganic materials and biomaterials with professors Galen D. Stucky and Daniel E. Morse. After receiving a Ph.D. in 1997, Belcher became a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Evelyn L. Hu, also a professor at UCSB, for two years before moving to UT Austin.
Currently, Belcher's research is focused on trying to control materials using natural biological templates or processes, combining materials science with biology. Belcher's progression from an interest in large molecules to "hijacking biological systems" for use with materials seems completely natural to her.
The turning point came one day as a graduate student when she was sitting in her office. She was looking at isostructures of materials related to CaCO3 shells to see if the proteins she was working on at the time could also make those materials. Since then, she has been trying to understand how nature makes materials and how those materials can be used as a template for inorganic materials.
Recently, Belcher and her team at UT Austin were successful in using viruses designed to bind zinc sulfide quantum dots to precisely order inorganic materials on the macroscale [C&EN, May 6, page 12; Science, 296, 892 (2002)]. They are currently screening for viruses that bind a number of other substrates.
Ultimately, Belcher hopes to use her research to understand and harness biological processes in nature. Along the way, she is working on understanding how different peptides can grow and organize materials and then using this information to make tiny functional devices.
At 35, Belcher has already received numerous awards and recognitions. Most recently, she received the 2002 World Technology Award in the materials field from the World Technology Network. She was named a Packard Fellow and an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow in 2001 and received the Presidential Early Career Award in Science & Engineering in 2000.
When asked about her greatest accomplishment, however, Belcher does not mention any of these honors. Instead, she believes her greatest accomplishments are her long-term friendships and positive influences on undergraduate students.
At first, Belcher entered academia rather than industry because she wanted to have the opportunity to study whatever interested her; she was concerned that she would lose that opportunity if she worked in industry. But since she entered academia, it's been the interaction with students that she most enjoys.
"Teaching is the best thing about being a professor," she says. She enjoys teaching freshman chemistry because of the instant feedback from students. "In the lab, you may get good results every couple of months. The feedback from students at how effective you are as a teacher is so much faster in the classroom. You have an idea of if you're getting information across to them," she explains.
While Belcher has enjoyed working at UT Austin, she is excited about the opportunities her move to MIT will provide. She is looking forward to spending less time on the road and more time interacting with her students. She also looks forward to interacting with more female colleagues--something she hasn't been able to do since graduate school. "I miss being around a lot of other women who are your colleagues," she confides.
Working in the biological engineering department at MIT will also provide her the opportunity to interact with colleagues who have a strong interest in biological processes. She hopes to expand her research in new directions.
As she, her husband, and their two dogs settle down in Boston, Belcher notes that what she will miss most from Texas are the people--namely, her friends, family, students, and colleagues. Belcher is happy that she'll have the opportunity to return to Texas frequently: She is staying on at UT Austin as an adjunct professor for a year while some of her students are finishing their research.
"Find your passion and follow it," Belcher advises. She admits that being a chemist and an academic is a lot of work, but "if there's nothing you can imagine doing more, then it's the right thing."
For now, Belcher looks forward to setting up shop at MIT and, of course, finding a fresh tortilla in Boston.