Nadrian C. Seeman

Born: December 16, 1945 | Chicago, IL, US

Nadrian C. Seeman grew up in Highland Park, Illinois. He obtained his PhD in crystallography from the University of Pittsburgh; then took a postdoc at Columbia University, working with Cyrus Levinthal, and a second postdoc in Alexander Rich's lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Rich discovered hybridization, which is the basis of all of Seeman's DNA nanotechnology work. Seeman began his professional career in the biology department at State University of New York at Albany. When Neville Kallenbach left the University of Pennsylvania to become chairman of the chemistry department at New York University, he recruited Seeman to join the NYU faculty. Seeman was influenced by the Escher print Depth to develop both three-dimensional (cube-like and similar) lattices of DNA, a process requiring branched DNA and sticky ends. As a result he is often referred to as the father of DNA nanotechnology. (He says he is sometimes called the father of single-stranded synthetic DNA topology because he recognized that DNA is the ideal synthetic topological component. ) He founded the International Society for Nanoscale Science, Computation, and Engineering (ISNSCE). He feels that other applications of his work include nanoelectronics and a way to look at what happens in living systems on the molecular scale by using DNA crystals to scaffold biomacromolecules to establish their structures and interactions with other species. Seeman shared the 2010 Kavli Prize in Nanoscience from the Norwegian Academy of Sciences with Donald Eigler for their development of unprecedented methods to control matter on the nanoscale. " Seeman founded the field, but there are now more than a hundred groups worldwide in DNA nanotechnology. Seeman's current work deals with extending the crystallographic aspects of his DNA constructs, as well as automatic molecular weaving.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0693
No. of pages: 144
Minutes: 313

Interview Sessions

W. Patrick McCray
5-6 December 2011

Abstract of Interview

Nadrian C. Seeman grew up an only child in Highland Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. His father owned a fur store, and his mother had been a teacher. He was inspired by his high school biology teacher to focus on the interface between the physical and biological sciences. Seeman entered the pre-med program at the University of Chicago, but soon switched his major to biochemistry. He next obtained his PhD in crystallography from the University of Pittsburgh; then took a postdoc at Columbia University, working with Cyrus Levinthal, and a second postdoc in Alexander Rich's lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Rich discovered hybridization, which is the basis of all of Seeman's DNA nanotechnology work although he never really appreciated it at the time. Seeman began his professional career in the biology department at State University of New York at Albany. He went to Leiden, Holland, to learn to make DNA. When Neville Kallenbach left the University of Pennsylvania to become chairman of the chemistry department at New York University, he recruited Seeman to join the NYU faculty.
Seeman was influenced by the Escher print Depth to develop both three-dimensional (cube-like and similar) lattices of DNA, a process requiring branched DNA and sticky ends. This work Seeman calls "structural DNA nanotechnology," which he defines as "using the chemical information in DNA to control the three-dimensional structure of objects, lattices, and nanomechanical devices." As a result he is often referred to as the father of DNA nanotechnology. (He says he is sometimes called the father of single-stranded synthetic DNA topology because he recognized that DNA is the ideal synthetic topological component. ) He founded the International Society for Nanoscale Science, Computation, and Engineering (ISNSCE), whose members are mostly computer scientists, physicists and chemists. His biophysical work analyzing branched DNA and its ramifications was funded by National Institutes of Health. He headed a Nanotechnology Interdisciplinary Research Team (NIRT) working on DNA-based nanomechanical devices; it was funded by the National Science Foundation. He has had funding from the U. S. Navy, the U. S. Army, the Department of Energy and briefly had support from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). He feels that other applications of his work include nanoelectronics and a way to look at what happens in living systems on the molecular scale by using DNA crystals to scaffold biomacromolecules to establish their structures and interactions with other species.
Seeman shared the 2010 Kavli Prize in Nanoscience from the Norwegian Academy of Sciences with Donald Eigler for their "development of unprecedented methods to control matter on the nanoscale." Seeman, in a picture with Eigler and President Obama, is wearing his best—indeed his only—suit, which he bought in Hong Kong on his way to Oslo; he tells a humorous story of the Kavli notification phone call. Seeman founded the field, but there are now more than a hundred groups worldwide in DNA nanotechnology; Seeman names about two dozen of them. Seeman's current work deals with extending the crystallographic aspects of his DNA constructs, as well as automatic molecular weaving. Seeman concludes his interview with a discussion of his extensive travel.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1966 University of Chicago BS Biochemistry
1970 University of Pittsburgh PhD Crystallography/Biochemistry

Professional Experience

Columbia University

1970 to 1972
Research Associate with Cyrus Leginthal

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1972 to 1977
Postdoctoral Fellow with Alexander Rich

State University of New York, Albany

1977 to 1983
Assistant professor, Biology Department
1983 to 1988
Associate professor (tenured), Biology Department

New York University

1988 to 2014
Professor, Department of Chemistry
2001 to 2014
Margaret and Herman Sokol Professor of Chemistry

Honors

Year(s) Award
1963 to 1966

Illinois State Scholar

1967 to 1970

NIH Predoctoral Trainee

1970

NATO Advanced Study Fellow

1972 to 1973

Damon Runyon Fellow

1973 to 1976

NIH Postdoctoral Fellow

1974

Sidhu Award, for the demonstration of RNA double helices in single crystals

1978 to 1981

Basil O'Connor Fellow

1982 to 1987

NIH Research Career Development Award

1993

Popular Science Magazine Science and Technology Award, for the construction of a DNA cube

1995

Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology, The Foresight Institute, for founding DNA nanotechnology

1997

Discover Magazine Emerging Technology Award, for DNA tinkertoys

1998

Honorary Distinguished Professor, Univ. Peruana Cayetano Heredia

1998

Elected American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Fellow

1999

Margaret and Herman Sokol Faculty Award in the Sciences, for excellence in research in the Faculty of Arts and Science at New York University

1999 to 2003

Charter Member, BBCA NIH Study Section

2003

Outstanding Mentor, Siemens Westinghouse Competition

2004

Tulip Award, DNA-Based Computation Community

2005

Nanotech Briefs Nano50 Innovator Award for DNA nanotechnology

2005

World Technology Network Award, for biotechnology

2005

Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry

2005

NIH MERIT Award

2006

Festschrift Volume, Nanotechnology: Science and Computation, (J. Chen, N. Jonoska, G. Rozenberg, eds. ), Berlin: Springer-Verlag

2008

Nichols Medal, New York American Chemical Society, for structural DNA nanotechnology

2009

Frontiers of Science Award, Society of Cosmetic Chemists

2010

Alexander Rich Medal, MIT

2010

Kavli Prize in Nanoscience, Norwegian Academy of Sciences

2010

Elected Foreign Member, Norwegian Acad. Science & Letters

2011

ISNSCE Award, ISNSCE

2012

Guggenheim Fellowship

2012

Chinese Academy of Sciences Albert Einstein Professorship Award

2012

Distinguished Alumnus Award, University of Pittsburgh

2013

Thomson Reuters Citation Laureate

2014

Elected Fellow of the American Crystallographic Association

2014

Jagadish Chandra Bose Triennial Gold Medal, Bose Institute

Table of Contents

Early Years and College
1

Grew up in Highland Park, Illinois. Only child. Father furrier, mother teacher. Had a good biology teacher and pretty good physics teacher in high school. Entered University of Chicago's pre-med program; switched back and forth between biochemistry and physical chemistry. Did not have best experience at University of Chicago.

Graduate School Years
6

John Law and the University of Pittsburgh. Discovered crystallography. Influenced by Escher print Depth while in Albany. Solved crystal. Wrote code. Picker diffractometer. Eulerian cradle. Solved crystals for his PhD.

Postgraduate Years
26

First postdoc at Columbia University; worked for Cyrus Levinthal; solved dinucleotide problem. Second postdoc working for Alexander Rich at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Loved MIT. Protein folding at Columbia. Schrödinger; Delbrück. Confirmed Watson-Crick base pair bonding hypothesis. Hoogstein base pair. Did not make crystals. Crystals on diffractometer. University of Pittsburgh the only crystallography department at time. Sung-Hou Kim and tRNA. Helen Berman and Protein Databank. Joined American Crystallographic Association while at Pittsburgh. Rich's lab: molecular biophysics and molecular genetics. Seeman ran gels, learned molecular biology. Phillip Sharpe discovered splicing. Importance and difficulties of growing crystals, controlling variables. Trial and error.

SUNY Albany Years
37

Job market bad; accepted offer at State University of New York at Albany (SUNY Albany). Leonard Lerman chair of department. Tenure. Lack of students; everyone pre-med. Learned to make DNA in Leiden, Holland. Neville Kallenbach. Funding always good: National Science Foundation (NSF); National Institutes of Health (NIH); March of Dimes; U. S. Navy. Holliday junctions. Got DNA synthesizer; description of machine. Most of his funding from NIH.

Beginning Years at New York University (NYU)
75

Kallenbach became chair of chemistry department at NYU, brought Seeman to NYU. Found good students for his lab. Influence of FDepth while in Albany. Escher every crystallographer's favorite artist. Caroline Mac Gillavry in Amsterdam. Bruce Robinson a spectroscopist. DNA movement; demonstration of major and minor grooves. Talking with Gregory Petsko on trip to Hawaii led to ideas about immobilizing branched DNA. Built physical model; up to eight armed junctions; sticky ends. Paper about nucleic acid junctions and lattices. Publishing difficulties. Paul Rothemund. President Clinton and National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). Head of a Nanoscale Interdisciplinary Research Team (NIRT). B-DNA and Z-DNA. Funding from U. S. Navy and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for making 3D crystals. NSF money for NIRT and for DNA-based computation. Bruce Robinson and biochip. Using architectural properties of DNA. George Church and lattices and tRNA. PNA idea. Seeman began field, which now is full of many institutions. Collaboration with Thomas Tullius on Holliday junctions. Eric Drexler. Nanotechnology as cult and as science. NanoCon. Closer to experiment than speculation, as not everything works. Working in nanometers, not angstroms. Seeman calls his work "structural DNA nanotechnology," defined as "using the chemical information in DNA to control the three-dimensional structure of objects, lattices, and nanomechanical devices. " Some origami. Hao Yan, Chengde Mao. David Schwartz. Joel Friedman from Bell Laboratories; went to Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Tomorrow must depend on what one does today.

Continuing at NYU
87

Junghuei Chen, Kathleen McDonough, John Mueller first graduate students. Lab management: always available but no longer in lab; not buddies anymore; older students teach younger. Three levels of science: technical—students and postdocs; tactical—how to do research, troubleshoot; strategic—what projects to work on, et cetera. Ruojie Sha manager of lab. Cooperation, not competition, in lab. Learning to fail; good fail 95% of time, great fail 90%. Few good American students; Seeman's students mostly Chinese. Founded International Society for Nanoscale Science, Computation, and Engineering (ISNSCE) to provide support for community. Foresight Institute. Kavli Prize. Ramaswamy Sarma. Foundations of Nano (FNANO). Met Erik Winfree, Paul Rothemund, Leonard Adleman. Began collaboration with Winfree and then Natasha Jonoska. ISNSCE mostly computer science people and chemists. How structural DNA nanotechnology relates to computing. Most-cited paper the two-dimensional array paper with Winfree. Seeman began field but now is embarrassed by terms he had to invent. Working on automatic weaving; Solomon's knot. James Canary. Planning to start working with carbon nanotubes. H numbers: intersection of number of citations with rank order of publications. Sometimes concepts rediscovered when older literature resurfaces. NIH studies biological phenomena, provides more money, peer review. William Keck Foundation.

Finishing Interview
131

Buying suit in Hong Kong to wear to Kavli Prize awards ceremony. Picture with Donald Eigler and President Obama. Meeting Fred Kavli. First winners Louis Brus and Sumio Iijima. Thinks only Rothemund and Yurke deserve nanotechnology prizes so far; Winfree perhaps in future. Lots of travel. Next trip to India, Sri Lanka, Qatar. Discussion of strangeness of Qatar. Northwestern University campus in Qatar. Islamic art Seeman's favorite because very geometrical.

Index
140

About the Interviewer

W. Patrick McCray

W. Patrick McCray is a professor in the Department of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In 2011–12, he was also the Eleanor Searle Visiting Professor in the History of Science at the California Institute of Technology. McCray entered the historians’ profession via his original career as a scientist. He has degrees in materials science and engineering from the University of Pittsburgh (BS and MS, 1989 and 1991) and the University of Arizona (PhD, 1996). He also held an NSF STS postdoctoral fellowship (1998–99) and served as an Associate Historian at the American Institute of Physics (2000–2003). He has written widely on the history of science and technology after 1945. His book Giant Telescopes: Astronomical Ambition and the Promise of Technology (Harvard University Press, 2004) explored how scientists build and use today’s most modern telescopes. A subsequent project examined the activities of citizen-scientists during the Cold War (Keep Watching the Skies: The Story of Operation Moonwatch and the Dawn of the Space Age (Princeton University Press, 2008)). After he arrived at UCSB in 2003, McCray became interested in the history of nanotechnology. He is a founding member and co-PI for the NSF-funded Center for Nanotechnology in Society at UCSB. He currently leads one of the CNS’s research initiatives; this explores the history of nanotechnology and its place in the broader context of the technological enthusiasm and industrial policy in the late 20th century. In 2013, Princeton University Press published his 4th book; titled The Visioneers: How an Elite Group of Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future, it explores the work of people who used their expertise as scientists, engineers, and popularizers to promote visions of a more expansive technological future. McCray has received numerous awards and fellowships including grants from the National Science Foundation, a Collaborative Research Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies (2010), and election as a Fellow to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2011).