Among the first things you notice when you step into the corner office of Harvard University professor Joanna Aizenberg are the playthings. Behind her desk sit a sand dollar, an azure butterfly mounted in a box, a plastic stand with long fibers that erupt in color when a switch is pulled, and haphazard rows of toys. Especially numerous are the Rubik’s cubes—the classic three-by-three, of course, but also ones with four, five, six and even seven mini cubes along each edge. An eight-year-old would be in heaven.
Playing with mathematical puzzles is more or less how Aizenberg, 52, spends her days. Nobody would challenge her seriousness, though. Born in a city near Ukraine’s southwestern border, Aizenberg earned a degree in chemistry from Moscow State University and then, in 1991, fled the overt sexism and anti-Semitism of the Russian academy for a brilliant career in the West as a bioengineer, uncovering the design secrets of Mother Nature and using them in her work. She has a joint appointment at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and the Wyss Institute, a new, $125-million center at Harvard devoted to biologically inspired engineering.