Big Things Start Small


When I first met Professor Robert Hamers, he was 32 and one of the newest members of UW-Madison’s chemistry faculty. I was 26 and documenting his research in the newly evolving area of scanning tunneling microscopy and nanotechnology. For both of us, fall 1990 was our first semester on campus.

Speaking about the pioneering tools of the time, Hamers said that a scanning tunneling microscope allows researchers to look at individual atoms, see how they’re arranged on the surface of an object and differentiate among elements. In other words, an otherworldly look into really tiny stuff with the potential to understand how one might modify electronic and chemical properties of things at this minute level.

Twenty-five years later, you may not see Hamers spending as much hands-on time in the lab but he is at the peak of his career teaching, directing graduate students running projects in multiple research labs and coordinating a wealth of new endeavors. He is a Wisconsin Distinguished Professor and Steenbock Professor of Physical Sciences.

In 2007, Hamers and fellow chemistry Professor Bob West founded Silatronix, a spinoff company working to develop safer electrolyte compounds for high-energy batteries.

This summer, the National Science Foundation awarded a $20 million grant to the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology – a multi-institutional research center based at UW-Madison and directed by Hamers – to further focus on the molecular mechanisms by which nanoparticles interact with biological systems.

Hamers says of his many current pursuits: “I’m having a fun time coordinating and collaborating with all these smart people.”

Reflecting on my own 25-year-career, I couldn’t agree more.

Jeff Miller, University Communications