Angela Belcher studies the nanostructures of ancient organisms.

Angela Belcher studies the nanostructures of ancient organisms such as abalones.
Image Credit: Belcher Lab

CLEMSON — Angela Belcher doesn’t sell seashells by the seashore, but the renowned scientist knows more about seashells than Sally ever will.

Professor Belcher has spent most of her career studying the nanostructures of ancient organisms such as abalones and harnessing their self-repair and self-assembling properties to construct environmentally benign materials and devices that are revolutionizing medicine, cleaning up the environment and providing renewable energy.

The highly sought speaker – whose work has appeared in Science and Nature, Fortune, Discover, The New York Times and numerous other prestigious publications – will take the stage at Clemson University at 2 p.m. Thursday to deliver the College of Science’s first “Discover Science Lecture.” The event will be held in the Strom Thurmond Institute’s Self Auditorium. Admission is free and the public is encouraged to attend.

“When you control materials at the nanoscale, a lot of really interesting things happen,” said Belcher, who is the James Mason Crafts Professor of Biological Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “There are many properties of living systems that can be harnessed to make advanced technologies that are smarter, more adaptable and that are also compatible with the environment. My team’s research involves everything from noninvasive cancer treatments to alternative energy technologies.”

Belcher said that a lot of people have a hard time recognizing the connections between these different fields. But during her talks, she explains that the ability to control materials with nanoscale technology is the common thread between cancer, environmental remediation and energy storage. Nanoscale technology involves using science and engineering to build tiny materials and devices composed of hundreds to thousands of atoms. One nanometer is equal to a billionth of a meter.

This is a highly magnified image of a nanoscale solar cell developed by Angela Belcher's team.

This is a highly magnified image of a nanoscale solar cell developed by Angela Belcher’s team.
Image Credit: Belcher Lab

“About a third of my group works on ovarian and brain cancer, another third researches environmental remediation and the last third works on energy storage and alternative technologies,” said Belcher, who was Scientific American’s Research Leader of the Year in 2006. “But it’s all about engineering biology to make better materials at the nanoscale and then using these materials for a variety of applications. Some of the same things we’ve developed for solar cells also have applications in cancer treatment.”

The Belcher Lab has been successful in using the tiny, internal designs of living organisms – refined over millions of years of evolution – to assemble a variety of materials.

“These materials can be designed to address scientific and technological problems in electronic, military, medicine and energy applications,” said Belcher, whose research was featured in a TED Talks segment in 2011. “Currently, we’re using this technology for medical diagnostics and imaging, carbon sequestration and storage, and fuel and solar cells.”

This is a highly magnified image of a nanoscale battery developed by Belcher's team.

This is a highly magnified image of a nanoscale battery developed by Belcher’s team.
Image Credit: Belcher Lab

Belcher’s lecture will address the conditions under which organisms first evolved to make materials, as well as the scientific approaches necessary to move beyond naturally evolved materials to genetically imprint advanced technologies such as lithium ion batteries, dye-sensitized solar cells and ovarian cancer imaging. For instance, the Belcher Lab has recently made significant advancements in the treatment of early stage ovarian cancer.

“We’re working on materials that will cause tiny ovarian tumors to fluoresce, which will help surgeons find the tumors and remove them,” said Belcher, who is a member of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. “Our technology can locate tumors that are half a millimeter in size. Right now, ovarian cancer is most often diagnosed at later stages – stage three or four – and by then, the patient’s five-year survival rate is not very good. But if we can find tumors at stage one or two, the survival rate will be vastly improved.”

Belcher’s Lab is also working on ways to extract heavy metals and other toxic materials from bodies of water, as well as focusing on removing radioactive materials during environmental cleanups.

“We’re working on all these things and pushing them forward,” said Belcher, who received her Ph.D in chemistry from the University of California-Santa Barbara. “We’re building very tiny structures and devices that are capable of accomplishing very big things.”