Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
NOVA ScienceNOW

Naomi Halas: Expert Q&A

  • Posted 04.01.05
  • NOVA scienceNOW

For a week in April 2005, Dr. Naomi Halas, a pioneering nanotechnologist at Rice University, answered questions about nanoshells and the role of women in science.

Naomi Halas

Naomi Halas

Dr. Naomi Halas is the Stanley C. Moore Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rice University. Full Bio

Photo credit: © WGBH/NOVA

Naomi Halas

Dr. Naomi Halas is the Stanley C. Moore Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rice University. She also teaches chemistry at Rice. Dr. Halas is developing applications for nanoshells, the gold nanodevices she invented, in early-stage cancer detection and photothermal malignant tumor treatment, among other biomedical applications.

Q: How does the immune system interact with these nanoshells? Anonymous

Naomi Halas: The nanoshells are coated with a molecule that arrests the interaction between the immune defense of the body and the nanoshells, and it works very well. Good question.

Q: Are the nanoshells metabolized at all? How do you go about oxidizing (or making sticky) the silica? Victor La Fond, San Diego, California

Halas: We use a molecule called aminopropyltrimethoxysilane, or APTES, to attach small islands of gold onto the silica nanoparticles.

Q: Here's a slightly different question, but would love to know your thoughts on this: what would you consider to be relevant nano-engineering research required within neuroscience? Can you envisage how nanotechnology could be used to greater understand the cognitive function of the brain? Anonymous

Halas: There are many ways that nanosensors can be developed that will allow for the study of signalling pathways within neurons and ultimately allow for a useful interface between neurons and artificial devices, perhaps.

Q: Are nanoshells a type of nanocrystal? Meredith Youngson, Katy, Texas

Halas: Because we grow them layer by layer, they are multicrystalline, not a single crystal.

Q: Hi. As a woman cardiologist in electrophysiology (man's world), I was very disappointed with your response to the buffoon who asked if you were dishing out coffee. For the next go-round, possibly you could respond "No, I am the woman who just gave the talk on nanoshells, but you can certainly get your own coffee."

We as women have been trained not to confront—that is not okay behavior for the future, women. It is okay to stand up for oneself. Please, please show that to the young women who share your future. They need a strong, responsive kind of woman role model.

Great show and very interesting research. I had not heard about the nanoshells. Good luck. Anonymous

Halas: The individual who asked me if I was the "coffee lady" did so before the meeting started. He had no way of knowing whether or not I was a speaker (I was searching for my name badge at the time). Believe me, I am not someone who has difficulty standing up for myself! I felt that it was appropriate to share my feelings of sadness and disbelief with the audience of NOVA. I believe that many people are able to identify with this type of situation.

Q: Will your treatment work for tumors that are not near the skin surface, where the tumor is not readily exposed to light? Also, how would such a tumor "burn" deep inside the body? Angie Nguyen, New York, New York

Halas: Nanoshells are engineered to absorb near-infrared light that passes through the skin and into deep tissue.

Q: My 20-year-old daughter is majoring in chemistry and math, with biology and Spanish minors. She is trying to put it all together in a search for a meaningful life's work. Any advice from a great role model such as yourself would be invaluable to her. Thanks for sharing your wisdom with young women who aspire to follow in your footsteps. They are very lucky to have the opportunity to learn from the best! Cynthia Wentz, St. Louis, Missouri

Halas: You must be so very proud of your daughter! She should follow after the things that she finds the most interesting and that excite her the most, and not "settle" or underestimate her own abilities.

Q: Has any research been performed relating to the treatment of brain tumors using nanoshell technology? George Wrocklage, Oakland, New Jersey

Halas: Not yet.

Q: Erin [a 4th grader] asked me (her mom) if the colors stay under your skin, if you can see them, and how you know what color to use? Julie Conway

Halas: Nanoshells are eliminated safely from the body, so they don't stay under the skin. You cannot see them because they absorb light just beyond the wavelengths we can see. We use the "color" where light penetrates skin, blood, and tissue the best.

Q: What color(s) of the spectrum have you had the most success with in destroying cancer cells? Anonymous

Halas: Same answer, we use the "color" just beyond the red side of the spectrum, where light penetrates skin, blood, and tissue the best.

Q: How soon do you expect human trials of this technology, and at what point is it currently toward that goal? How does one become involved in that phase of the research? Frank

Halas: Human trials are being planned for the early part of 2006. These trials will be conducted by medical doctors.

Q: My daughter is a junior in high school and wants to major in physics in college, including nanotechnology and astrophysics. I've heard that certain colleges are more "female friendly" to women studying physical sciences than other schools. What are some questions you'd suggest we ask of the college or reference sources to review to determine a school that will support my daughter's goals? Nadine Buckley

Halas: Perhaps your daughter should look at Bryn Mawr College! You should look for schools that specifically address the fact that they have women in their undergraduate science and/or engineering programs.

Q: Have you read Eric Drexler's Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology? How soon do you think such a scenario could become reality? Edward Luhn

Halas: I do not personally "believe" in the Drexlerian view of nanotechnology. It is science fiction and really does nothing to advance the actual field. (It does stimulate media interest in science, however.)

Q: My wife has a oligodendro brain glioma. Is there any nanotech research being done in this area? Anonymous

Halas: There are no human trials at this time that I know of, but I am sure that brain cancer is an area of extreme interest to medical researchers who are pursuing nanotech approaches to cancer therapy.

Q: Just a positive comment. I'm a 50-year-old male who always believed more in peoples' abilities than in their gender. If there were more people with your courage we would all benefit from their acheivements. Keep up the good work. Brad Howe

Halas: Thanks for the positive feedback.

Q: I have been diagnosed with liver cancer. The tumor has entered the portal vein of the liver, which prevents my being eligible for a liver transplant.

Can nanotechnology be used to shrink the tumor out of the portal vein so I can have a liver transplant? An experimental drug has not been released that may also do the same over time. I live in Cincinnati, Ohio, and wonder if I should talk to someone who is doing nanotechnology to cure or kill cancerous tumors. What do you think I should do? Ron Baker

Halas: I would talk with the closest cancer research hospital and find out if there are any advanced or experimental therapies that would be suitable for your type of cancer and volunteer for any studies that you qualify for.

Q: What are your greatest hopes for nanotechnology? Thank you. Anonymous

Halas: I think that nanotechnology does, in fact, present opportunities to solve some of our major problems such as energy and environmental sustainability as well as providing revolutionary new ways to achieve and maintain healthy bodies.

Q: I have a 14-year-old niece who is an A-student in math and science. How do I encourage her passion for math and science and teach her how to handle the sexism and prejudice she will most likely face? Ann Stanley

Halas: You should do everything to encourage her studies and broaden her experience in math and science to prepare her for college, and you shouldn't discourage her with discussions about sexism and prejudice, because there is a little bit of that everywhere. It is like driving: we are taught to anticipate the presence of reckless drivers, but we can't drive at all if we assume that all the people driving around our car are reckless, can we?

Q: How do you form the nanoshells that are described in the program? What type of equipment and techniques do you use? Anonymous

Halas: We start with silica nanoparticles, bind small gold nanoparticles to their surface, and then plate more gold onto that structure. That allows the small gold islands to grow together into a complete shell layer.

Q: How do you heat the nanoshells without damaging the healthy tissue? In the video it looked like the chicken breast was starting to smoke. Chase 10th Grade, Henderson, Nevada

Halas: It is a very strong effect, so in living animals or people the light intensity is much, much lower. You only have to raise the temperature of cells about 20 degrees in order to kill them. The temperature increase is monitored—no smoke!

Q: I am currently a 5th year Industrial Design student at the Cleveland Institute of Art. I have been working on a design that attempts to solve the problem of cross-contamination in the kitchen sponge. One of my concepts was to use nanotechnology to be able to somehow prevent the bacteria inside the kitchen sponge from reproducing and spreading to other surfaces. Can this be done? What are your thoughts? Thank you for your time and attention! Melania Popa, Avon, Ohio

Halas: Look at "anti-fouling" compounds or polymers that could be applied to the sponge.

Q: Could this technology be used to change the discoloration of a person's skin tone? Brent Tolliver, Lackland, Texas

Halas: Perhaps. It has not been investigated.

Q: Professor Halas, could you share your opinion on Larry Summer's comment about women in math and science? Thank you. Anonymous

Halas: Of course, I do not agree with his provocative comments concerning the capabilities of women and their aptitude for science. The response to his remarks has been overwhelming and has made people discuss the topic of gender bias in the sciences seriously, and for that, I thank him!

Q: Professor Halas, I am a grad student at The University of Georgia who is studying creativity and how it relates to the developing field of nanotechnology. I am conducting research on creative processes. Would you have time to share your thoughts on how your creative process affects your discovery process? I would also be interested to know if you are familiar with any creative theorists—Csikszentmihalyi, Sternberg, Skinner, or Feldman—and if their work has influenced your sense of creativity. Thank you in advance for your time. Pam Amendola, Athens, Georgia

Halas: My wheels are always turning. I also believe in the power of the subconscious mind in making unusual connections between things and in out-of-the-box thinking in general. I am not familiar with any of the theorists you mentioned.

Q: How do you think your early work in music influenced your science career? Do you still play an instrument and love music? Anonymous

Halas: It influenced my mathematical abilities, I am sure. It also influenced my work ethic: musicians are some of the hardest-working people that I know. And as with scientists, it doesn't seem like work because they love it so much. I play the Irish Pennywhistle these days, when I get to play.

Q: What other technological applications could nanoshells be used for? Could you make nano-robots with them? Dana Mathes, Oakland, California

Halas: Many other technological applications, and if anyone wants to make robots with them, good luck.

Q: I would like to know if this type of treatment can be used for blood cancer like leukemia or lymphoma, and if it is possible, how long do you think before it will be available? Renee, Secaucus, New Jersey

Halas: There may be ways for this to be used in blood cancer, but it would not be easy. It is not one of the initial types of cancer that is being considered, unfortunately.

Q: Dr. Halas: I found your segment on NOVA scienceNOW fascinating. For months, I have tried to keep up with nanotechnology through the NASA Tech Briefs and other sources, but I would really like to find a novice level source of information. Where does an "outsider" learn more about your work? I am an architect, but have always been interested in applied scientific research.

Also, I salute your success in a male-dominated field. Being an architect, it has been interesting to see the influence women have had on my profession over the past 40 years. Our office now boasts a very balanced (50-50) staff, and we see the benefits every day of having dedicated women to work with.

Best wishes, Sam Austin
C.M. Architecture, P.A., Fort Worth, Texas

Halas: Thanks for the positive comments. We have not written an article for nonscientists yet. Regards, Naomi

Related Links

  • Profile: Naomi Halas

    Naomi Halas is a pioneering nanotechnologist bent on seeing practical applications for her work—and soon.

  • Meet Naomi Halas

    The inventor of nanoshells, tiny spheres with great medical potential, discusses her lab's groundbreaking work.

  • Working With Nanoshells

    In this interview, nanotechnologist Naomi Halas talks in depth about her work with tiny spheres that hold great promise.

  • Cancer Nanotech

    Structures smaller than a single red blood cell could revolutionize cancer diagnosis and treatment.