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Looking ahead: Science in 2015

Murray Gibson, founding dean of the College of Science, discusses some of last year’s most fascinating science advances and what he’ll be watching closely in 2015.

What science advances stood out to you in 2014?
As a physicist, I was fascinated to see the Nobel Prize in physics awarded to researchers who made possible the blue light-emitting diode and laser. It’s a new, very efficient and environmentally friendly light source. It can be used to create real “white” light, almost like sunlight, so you might avoid seasonal affective disorder in dark winters; I have light bulbs that use this technology at home. The technology will have a huge impact on society, from energy efficiency to greatly improved computer storage to better movie screens, which will be created with laser light and smaller pixels. This was arguably the first time the Nobel Prize in physics had been awarded in the area of materials science. The key work recognized was improving the quality of the materials at the heart of the devices—a major international effort was needed to remove defects as was done in the past on other materials that made modern communications and computation possible. It took hundreds of dedicated researchers—both engineers and scientists—to make this possible, with the prize winners making the key advances. By recognizing the importance of materials science to making new technologies work, we will likely encourage young people to pursue careers in materials fields that are both intellectually challenging and economically important.

What was one under-the-radar science breakthrough in 2014?
The one that struck my attention is the creation of an optical transistor that can be activated by one single photon (quantum of light energy). This is a pretty cool accomplishment and an example of experiments that aim to get “transistors” to switch with a single quantum—an electron or photon, for example. A big attraction of this “quantum” approach, still in its infancy, is that it could use much less energy than conventional computers. Have you wondered why your laptop gets so hot? Inside each of the millions of transistors, thousands of electrons are sloshed around, just to tell the difference between a “1” and a “0.” In principle one electron would be enough and “quantum” device research promises a revolution, although it still faces myriad challenges. Today even if we were able to build a supercomputer that is as powerful as the human brain, it would take the power needed to operate a city, whereas we operate our brains on less power than a dim light bulb. Though the impact might not come until years from now, computers utilizing “quantum” device technology will be revolutionary.

What are you most looking forward to in 2015?
I have experience working with particle accelerators from my time at Argonne National Laboratory, so I’m interested in the upgrades happening right now to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland. It’s the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator, and once it’s back up this year I’m sure it will lead to new discoveries. Following the groundbreaking discovery of the Higgs Boson, we hope the next big discoveries relate to the nature of dark matter—the mysterious invisible matter that is predicted to greatly outweigh all the visible matter in the universe. It will be exciting to see what the LHC’s new, more powerful capabilities this year mean for that realm of science.

In astrophysics, this is the year that the New Horizons satellite will finally reach Pluto. As a result of the NASA spacecraft’s historic journey, which began in 2006, we will see close up pictures of the former planet and hopefully learn more about what it is made of.

The College of Science was founded in 2010, whereupon COS created a strategic five-year plan describing the college’s vision. How has the “Experience Science Northeastern 2015” plan unfolded thus far and what’s in store for this year?
Over the past five years, we’ve hired an impressive group of faculty, many in research areas outlined in “Experience Science Northeastern 2015,” which aligns with the university’s larger research goals and themes. One area in which we’ve made great progress is urban coastal sustainability at our Marine Science Center in Nahant, Massachusetts. We’ve invested more than $10 million and hired seven new faculty members to create powerhouse research programs in this area, which includes research on how human and natural ecosystems are coupled together. A second area of success is in drug discovery and delivery, especially in neglected tropical diseases and microbial drugs. For example, one of our newest faculty members, Roman Manetsch, is working on a drug that targets malaria. And professors Kim Lewis and Slava Epstein recently published groundbreaking research on their team’s work describing a new antibiotic that could treat a range of chronic infections.

In addition, we’ve focused on areas such as affective science (the science of emotion) and materials for energy, and we continue to build upon our leading research in network science—an area in which we recently launched a first-of-its-kind doctoral program. Our strategic plan of five years ago continues to develop, and new opportunities are emerging. For example, we have begun working jointly with the Bouvé College of Health Sciences in the area of healthy aging research, which is important and an exciting opportunity for Northeastern.

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