Thomas Webster, an internationally renowned researcher who has pioneered the use of nanotechnology to improve medical devices, was formally installed as the inaugural Art Zafiropoulo Chair in Engineering on Friday afternoon.
Webster, a professor and chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering, was honored at a ceremony in the Raytheon Amphitheater attended by President Joseph E. Aoun and other university leaders, faculty, staff, students, family, and friends. He gave a lecture in which he discussed his career developing nanomaterials for a range of medical applications, his love for working on translational research, and how his entrepreneurial endeavors have paved important paths toward advancing his work beyond the lab.
In his lecture, Webster commended Northeastern University for the value it has placed on taking calculated risks, and he discussed how he’s embraced this same mindset throughout his own professional career. Ten years ago he launched an open access journal—the International Journal of Nanomedicine—despite others in the field criticizing this approach as “paying to publish.” Webster argued that open access in fact increases the work’s impact because more people would be able to read, debate, and build upon it.
Webster has also taken this approach to his research, citing several examples of developing nanotechnology solutions to improve healthcare devices, many of which are being commercialized. His team has created injectable nanomaterials that promote the growth and regeneration of bones and cartilage, advancements that are aimed at replacing metallic implants. His lab is also developing nanomaterials aimed at fighting viruses and infections, and others that target brain tissue affected by stroke.
Webster’s group is also focused on developing nanosensors that can detect, respond to, and send back information on illness or infection within the body. These kinds of sensors, he said, present a major opportunity for the healthcare field by shifting the focus toward predictive medicine rather than reactionary treatment.
“The best sensor in the world, in my opinion, is us,” Webster said. “It’s immune cells in our body that can sense when something is there that shouldn’t be. We’ve got to move toward this if we want to advance healthcare.”
The endowed faculty chair was established with a $2.5 million gift from Arthur W. Zafiropoulo, E’61, founder, CEO, and chairman of Ultratech, Inc., a Silicon Valley-based multinational company that develops, manufactures, and markets photolithography and laser thermal processing. He is a visionary innovator and philanthropist who is director emeritus for Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International, a global trade association representing the semiconductor, flat-panel display equipment and materials industry. He is also founder and owner of the successful Ferrari dealership of Silicon Valley, one of the largest in North America.
“Art’s generosity and vision have allowed us to empower a top scholar in Professor Tom Webster. This demonstrates the powerful role that philanthropy plays in advancing our mission,” said Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern. “This is more than an investment in one outstanding scientist—Tom’s work will advance the field of nanomedicine and change millions of lives.”
Endowed chairs and professorships are among the highest recognition that an institution of higher education can bestow on its faculty, and among the most powerful tools Northeastern has for recruiting and retaining top faculty. Donors like Zafiropoulo who establish an endowed chair create a lasting legacy that links their name to excellence in research and teaching in perpetuity. Endowed chairs are reserved for distinguished scholars and teachers and provide funds to the chair holder in support of his or her teaching, research, and service.
“This is a very special day for the College of Engineering,” said Nadine Aubry, the college’s dean, praising Webster for his leadership in building the department’s national profile and attracting new, highly talented faculty members and students to the department.
In her remarks, Aubry noted Webster’s many impressive accomplishments throughout his career. He has authored 400 peer-reviewed journal paper and nine textbooks, holds numerous patents and has launched eight companies, and is one of the most-cited researchers in the area of materials science. What’s more, Webster is president-elect of the U.S. Society for Biomaterials, is the founder and editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Nanomedicine, and is on the editorial board of 15 other journals.
Webster is also a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineers, the American Society for Nanomedicine, the Biomedical Engineering Society, and the Ernst Strungmann Foundation.
“You’re doing tremendous work, and we’re glad you’re doing it at Northeastern,” said Stephen W. Director, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs.
For his part, Zafiropoulo congratulated Webster on his “well-deserved” chair installation, noting that his research is contributing to a critical global need for better medical diagnostics.
“We should be able to diagnose any kind of medical ailments easily, quickly, and very inexpensively. I think the work Tom is doing is going to lead to that,” Zafiropoulo said.