Science Innovator Works to Turn Molecular Mysteries into Medical Applications

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When the president needs advice about questions in science, he often seeks out members of the National Academy of Sciences. Now he can include Northwestern University physicist Monica Olvera de la Cruz on that exclusive contact list.

Olvera de la Cruz is unraveling some of the mysteries of complex molecules such as DNA and working with "nano containers" for drug delivery, bio-compatible materials for medical applications and membranes for water filtration.

Academy members have elected Olvera de la Cruz, who joins nearly 2,200 leading U.S. scientists and 400 foreign associates, to their prestigious ranks. Formed under Abraham Lincoln's administration in 1863, the purpose of the NAS is to "investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science” when the president or U.S. government has questions.

Monica Olvera de la Cruz has been elected a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (Photo courtesy of Monica Olvera de la Cruz) Monica Olvera de la Cruz has been elected a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (Photo courtesy of Monica Olvera de la Cruz) To be inducted, as Olvera de la Cruz will be next April, is one of science’s highest honors.

At Northwestern, Olvera de la Cruz is a researcher, chemistry professor in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and a professor of materials science and engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. She is also the director of the University’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center.

She received a B.A. in physics from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico in 1981 and her Ph.D. in physics from Cambridge University in Great Britain in 1985. She has lived in the Chicago area for the past 26 years.

She talks below about her life, her achievement, and the state of U.S. science

Describe the work you do with what are called macromolecules and why they are important?
Molecules that are very long, like DNA, have many functions by changing their shapes and combining with other molecules and adjusting shapes and so forth. That’s what we call “soft materials.” They can have many applications but they also have some fascinating scientific behavior in the sense that you can make laws on how they react with things. What it means is that these new materials can offer a lot in terms of studying the phenomena for the development of new materials or scientific concepts.

You can encapsulate materials and deliver materials very carefully to specific sites, for example drug delivery in medicine. So you can deliver the drug into cells directly for medical diagnostics.

The main applications of soft materials I work with are "nano containers" for drug delivery, bio-compatible materials for medical applications and membranes for water filtration.

What does being elected to the National Academy of Sciences mean to you?
It’s a great opportunity. The fact that all of these gifted scientists voted me in means that they have recognized my work. My field is an interface field between physics and chemistry and is something we call “soft matter.” So it is a great opportunity to be recognized so this field has a status in the Academy.

How did you get involved in science?
I was always interested in physical phenomena and mathematics. When I was growing up, I had to study by myself because there were not many places where I could access an education in these areas. Later, when I moved to Mexico City, I was very lucky to work with a group of students who were very gifted and we were having a lot of fun doing math and physics problems. I had a mentor there who taught me more modern physical sciences and that’s why I went to do my Ph.D. in physics in Cambridge.

What has been the most rewarding part of your career?
I enjoy teaching and supervising students. I enjoy interacting with young people and discovering with them phenomena that nobody would dream happens in a certain way. They have taught me things too.  Analyzing subjects for a long time and suddenly discovering why things happen a certain way and sharing with others around me makes it rewarding.  Also, starting with a goal, seeing it through and discovering that what you predicted is true.

What will your responsibilities be as a member of the National Academy of Sciences?
My responsibilities will be to respond to the requests from the government and the president on special issues in science. When you are a member of the National Academy, you are serving the government in the evaluation of issues that arise in your field. 

How do you feel about the status of science education in America?
I think we are striving to do a good job at all levels. It’s very hard because we have different standards at different schools so some of it depends on how lucky you are with the schools you get in. There are very good opportunities, it’s just that there’s not the same opportunities all over the country.  For higher education, we have outstanding universities here in the United States. We are very lucky that we have very good universities in different areas that do top research and educate people very well. 

We have a competitive system where students have to show in high school whether they are qualified for this field but there are other opportunities too.  Even sometimes where students don’t have access to these top universities because of various reasons, they have opportunities to go back and study at community colleges. 

We have to keep trying to keep the standards high and raise more money to keep those high standards.  We have a great future.  We are trying and we are doing a great job but of course we could do better but it’s a slow change

Have you had a chance to celebrate yet?
Yes, I have! They’ve had many celebrations for me at Northwestern University in my department and at the school. The Department of Material Science and the Department of Chemistry had a toast for me. The McCormick School of Engineering has thrown a party and there is going to be an awards dinner with the president of Northwestern University and the deans in the future. We are all very happy about this membership. I have a daughter and she is very happy.  She told all her friends in her school and they have sent me emails to congratulate me.

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