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Past Winner
2007 E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship

Jillian Buriak

Chemistry

University of Alberta


Jillian Buriak
Jillian Buriak

University of Alberta chemist Jillian Buriak has very small research ambitions. That’s because she studies nanoscience, a rapidly expanding field that deals with materials whose dimensions are measured in nanometres (one-billionth of a metre) and whose potential applications are virtually unlimited. When cut down to such a tiny scale, the properties of materials can change substantially.

Just over a decade after earning her doctorate in inorganic and organometallic chemistry at the Université de Strasbourg in France, Dr. Buriak has carved out an enviable international reputation as a researcher who thinks outside the box to come up with revolutionary ideas.

Over the past decade, her work has helped solve problems related to synthesizing and determining the properties of nanomaterials in an unprecedented way. In the process, she has brought together two seemingly unrelated areas of chemistry, organometallic chemistry and materials science, and developed fundamentally new reactions related to the surface chemistry of semiconductors. Her work has laid the groundwork for developing ways to link molecular electronics and biological structures with integrated circuits, and has earned her one of six 2007 NSERC E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowships.

Dr. Buriak left a position at Purdue University in 2003 to continue her research in her native Canada, thanks in large measure to the world-class facilities at the University of Alberta and the National Research Council’s National Institute for Nanotechnology (where she also holds an appointment as a Senior Research Officer). Recruiting her to Edmonton was considered a major coup in the chemistry community.

Perhaps the best-known applications for nanotechnology revolve around electronics. Dimensions in the ubiquitous silicon chip continue to shrink. For example, state-of the-art transistors now measure just 45 nanometres. One of the challenges becomes developing cost-effective ways to connect these tiny components to bulkier parts of a system, such as a computer keyboard.

That’s where Dr. Buriak and her group come in. As one of the world’s top experts in semiconductor surface chemistry, her current focus is on the interface between ever-shrinking chips and the larger-scale pieces they have to connect with in order to make a device usable.

One of the approaches she uses is called self-assembly. “We choose molecules that have specific properties built into them that allow them to take on specific ordered structures based on their composition,” she says.

Dr. Buriak plans to take this research well beyond building a better cell phone, though. Electronics aren’t the only things that work on a nano scale – so does the human nervous system. The NSERC Steacie Fellowship will help her quest for viable ways to connect silicon chips with biological structures, including human neurons.

The goal is to develop tools that will lead to a better understanding of neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS), via a marriage of nanotechnology with neuroscience that she is conducting in partnership with Dr. Fabrizio Giuliani at the University of Alberta Hospital. The first step is to figure out how to convince a neuron that the surface of a silicon chip is a good place to call home.

“This all comes down to surface chemistry,” explains Dr. Buriak. “There is more and more research showing that nanoscale patterns on a surface are absolutely critical for cellular well-being. The outside of a cell is not just some messy, disordered array – there is a pattern in the cell itself. We’re going to figure out which nanoscale patterns these cells like the best.”

Once the patterns are known and a suitable environment created, researchers can then subject the neurons to different stimuli. The silicon chips will in turn transmit information about which conditions make the neurons do well or poorly, and even which individual components of the neurons are affected. In reproducing the slow degradation that typifies neurological diseases, Dr. Buriak and her colleagues hope this technology will help medical researchers uncover clues about underlying causes of MS and potential treatments. Applications for other neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease could follow.

Lest anyone think that bionic people are around the corner, Dr. Buriak emphasizes that her work will not lead to such a science fiction scenario any time soon. Technologies such as tissue engineering may be one of the potential applications of her work, but it is a long way off.

In the shorter, more realistic term, other applications of connecting electronic chips with biological molecules include creating sensors to detect hazardous bacteria or chemicals.

Despite its startling advances and enormous potential, Dr. Buriak does not regard nanoscience itself as revolutionary. What she does consider unprecedented is how nanoscience has influenced collaboration between scientists from a host of different disciplines.

“Collaborations are always tricky,” she says. “The personalities have to match. The approach towards how to solve a problem has to match. So many things have to be right.” Still, researchers are talking to one another like never before.

Another problem related to increased interdisciplinarity in science relates to designing the right curriculum for science courses. “It’s really making us think that our basic curriculum is old-fashioned and out of date,” says Dr. Buriak. No matter what their specialty, researchers need to have a decent grasp of a number of other fields as well. But that need has to be balanced against the danger of students delving into too many subjects with insufficient depth.

Given the bewildering array of options, Dr. Buriak says students often ask for her advice on which direction to steer their scientific careers. “You have to develop your own niche,” she says. In her case, that’s a niche measured in nanometres.