Angela Belcher grew up captivated by science and technology, disassembling clocks and electric can openers as early as age five. Today, she is one of the leading scientists in the field of nanotechnology and looks to the natural world for clues and inspiration to create extraordinary materials. Belcher is fascinated by the idea that soft-bodied organisms in the sea have been using minerals to build exquisite structures like shells for millions of years. She bases her work on the idea that nature, if given the proper set of ingredients and building conditions, can create an infinite number of materials.
Belcher alters the DNA in bacterial viruses which are benign to humans to create materials for practical human use by exposing them to a wide variety of inorganic elements in the periodic table. Her groundbreaking work has resulted in “self-assembled” materials that may be used as components in electronic devices such as batteries, display screens, solar cells, and fuel. For her inventions in biological engineering, Belcher is the winner of the 2013 $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize.
Belcher is a native of San Antonio, Texas, and graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) in 1991 with a BA from the College of Creative Studies. She was given the freedom to design her own major and took this as an opportunity to combine the fields of chemistry, biology, physics, and ecology to develop her own curriculum that served as the foundation of her present success. Belcher then completed her Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry at UCSB in 1997 and then worked as a postdoctoral fellow. In 1999, she served as an Assistant Professor in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Departments at the University of Texas at Austin before joining the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is currently the W.M. Keck Professor of Energy in Materials Science and Biological Engineering, and a David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research faculty member.
Belcher has launched two companies. Cambrios Technologies was founded in 2003 to commercialize biologically-formed electronic materials, including transparent conductor materials for touch screen and display applications. Siluria Technologies was founded in 2007 and uses the basic components of a virus to identify new materials to convert natural gas into high-value liquid transportation fuel.
She has been recognized with numerous awards and honors for her achievements, including being named one of Rolling Stone’s top 100 people changing the country in 2009, a TIME“Hero” in 2006 for her research related to climate change, a 2006 Research Leader of the Year by Scientific American, one of Fortune Magazine’s Top 10 Innovators Under 40 and a Technology Review Top 100 Inventors (TR100) in 2002. She was awarded the 2006 Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Award, the Eni Prize for Renewable and Non-conventional Energy in 2010 and the 2004 MacArthur Foundation Genius Award.
Belcher also spurs invention in young students who are inspired by her ideas and enthusiasm. While at the University of Texas at Austin, she was integral in outreach programs in the school of natural sciences to provide intensive chemistry, and biology education to undergraduate students from rural communities. She has been involved in mentoring middle school girls in science and math and has hosted several “Chemistry Circuses” for elementary students where she teaches them how to isolate DNA from their cheeks and build their own solar cells.
Belcher is currently researching ways to use her technology for early detection of ovarian cancer as well as for the purification of water. She is continuously excited by nature’s possibilities to help create technologies that will benefit society.