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See Inside February 2012

Designers of Exotic Materials Learn New Tricks from Animals

Chemist Joanna Aizenberg mines the deep sea and the forest wetlands for nature's design secrets and uses them to fashion new materials that may change the world



Photograph by Jared Leeds

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.

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