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Halas becomes second woman named University Professor

Photo courtesy Rice University

By Viola Hsia     2/15/23 12:36am

Naomi Halas was recently named University Professor, the highest academic title Rice offers. Halas, the only Rice faculty member to be elected to both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering for her research at Rice, is the tenth person and second woman to receive the honor in Rice’s 111-year-history. 

Halas, who studies how nanoparticles react with light, first came to Rice in 1989 after working at AT&T Bell Laboratories. She is also the director of the Smalley-Curl Institute. Most of her research has led to commercial work; one of her most prominent projects being non-invasive cancer cell treatment, in collaboration with current Dean of Engineering at University of Virginia Jennifer West, around 2000.

“We demonstrated that you can put the nanoparticles in the tumor, shine near infrared lights, lowering energy, so you’re not destroying DNA or anything,” Halas said “The nanoparticles would capture the light, convert the light to heat and then destroy the tumor by hyperthermia, just by raising it to a temperature where cells cannot survive.”

Halas’ work with nanoparticles and light has also extended to climate change, leading to the formation of a company called Syzygy Plasmonics in 2018. According to Halas, this company works to help decarbonize the planet and make inexpensive hydrogen, raising $76 million last fall.

“I feel so good about it, because so many people talk about the climate crisis. They talk about climate change,” Halas said, “It’s really satisfying to [have] something that’s going to work. And when this works, we don’t have to rely on the government to subsidize it, because it will naturally be available.”

Halas hopes her work across these fields helps increase scientific literacy, something she believes is scientists’ responsibility.

“If we do something we use public funds, we use taxpayer money. So we need to be able to explain the impact of our work to people who fund it, people who pay taxes, so they understand that if [their] tax money actually goes to my research lab, that the things I’m doing are actually going to improve lives,” Halas said, “That’s very much our responsibility.”

Halas said she hopes that her appointment will continue the increase of female representation both in her own field and other fields of STEM.

“I really look at the positivity of this, that we have so many female students, so many women who are getting a Ph.D., so many women who are looking for research careers, looking for professional careers,” Halas said. “Yes, there are more things to be done. There’s no question about that. But my professional life has really spanned a time [from] when it was very unusual for women in any position compared to now where it’s a really different thing. It’s a much more exciting and welcoming place for women at all levels.”

Halas said this accomplishment is particularly significant because of what it represents for her time at Rice.

“It means a lot to me, this wonderful honor,” Halas said. “I’ve really enjoyed the specialness of Rice and the outstanding students ... and my wonderful colleagues.”

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