A team of engineers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), Schlumberger-Doll Research Center in Cambridge, Mass., and the University of Texas, Austin, have created a truly portable device for nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy.
NMR spectroscopy is a technique that perturbs protons within a molecule to glean important clues about its structure. It can identify unknown substances, detect very slight variations in chemical composition, and measure how molecules interact, making it an essential tool in organic chemistry, structural biology, and drug discovery, as well as for quality control in many industries.
Led by Donhee Ham, Gordon McKay Professor of Electrical Engineering and Applied Physics at Harvard SEAS, and his student Dongwan Ha, Ph.D. ’14, the team has dramatically shrunk the electronic spectrometer components, fitting them on a silicon chip smaller than a sesame seed. Combined with a compact permanent magnet, this minuscule spectrometer represents the smallest device that can presently perform multidimensional NMR spectroscopy—a process Ham calls “one of the most powerful analytical tools to determine molecular structures at atomic resolution.”
Significantly reducing both the size and cost of the device—while also preserving the broad functionality of much larger spectroscopy setups—now enables the development of portable NMR spectrometers that could travel to remote sites for online, on-demand applications or simply to laboratories where massive, state-of-the-art systems would be prohibitively expensive. The chips can also operate accurately over a wide temperature range.
Those tiny black specks at the bottom of the photo are the chips.
A defining characteristic of SEAS is the interconnectedness of teaching and research areas. The very structure of the school—it is organized around broad and overlapping areas, but has no traditional departments—underscores the interdisciplinary philosophy at SEAS.
“Those who work and study at SEAS experience on a daily basis the web of connections across areas, programs, and faculty,” said SEAS Dean Cherry A. Murray, John A. and Elizabeth S. Armstrong Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences and professor of physics. “The new visualization tool graphically illustrates those connections, and by extension helps users imagine their own place within SEAS.”
For example, graduate students or prospective industry collaborators can use the online tool to quickly identify SEAS faculty members who conduct research in a particular field. Individuals interested in one of the School’s degree programs can see how it corresponds to research areas and the faculty who teach in that program.
BUILT FOR SPEED, the Summer 2014 issue of our newsletter, Topics, delves into supercomputing!
Harvard researchers are pushing the limits of computing power to achieve new breakthroughs in science and engineering. Sustainable energy? Self-knowledge? What will high-performance computing mean for you?
We as engineers realize that we have the ability to solve pressing world problems in energy, sustainability, transportation, education, healthcare, food, and the environment. While other disciplines in basic science aim to understand reality, engineers ultimately seek to build a new reality, a better place for everyone.
Scientists have long known that bacteria can double their population in as little as 20 minutes, but a series of pioneering studies in the late 1960s revealed that it takes about an hour from the time DNA replication starts until cell division occurs.
The remaining mystery has been in how those two processes are coordinated.
“The answer is quite remarkable,” Amir said. “… What bacteria do is actually start the DNA replication process for subsequent generations. A single bacterial cell may actually be replicating DNA for its grandchildren, or even its great-grandchildren.”
During a recent visit to James W. Hennigan Elementary School in Jamaica Plain for a science fair, Carlos Brambila recalled the lasting impact a similar fair had on him. When he was in grade school in California, a scientist from a local university came to his school to show the students how smoking affects the body.
“It was an eye-opener,” Brambila said. “After that experience, I was always asking why things happen and how they work. I realized how science could really be applied in the real world.”
Now a senior bioengineering major at San Diego State University (SDSU), Brambila is conducting research in the lab of David Weitz, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Harvard University, over the summer. He jumped at the chance to participate in science demonstrations at the Hennigan.
“I remember how strongly that can impact someone’s life, because it did for me. That’s when I started to question why things are they way they are, and why things happen. If it weren’t for those early experiences, I don’t know if I would think the way I do now.”
Prof. Roger Brockett, a 45-year member of the Harvard SEAS faculty, has been honored “for inspirational mentorship of generations of graduate students who have participated in defining the field of control engineering.”
To me, it was a victorious moment that finally justified a long-term effort, going through multiple trials and errors. Until then, I wasn’t even sure if the experiment would really be possible, so it was like a ‘through darkness comes light’ moment.