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Lumen Winter 2011 Issue
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White House honour

An enquiring mind and a desire to make a difference has led a University of Adelaide Science graduate all the way to the White House for a US Presidential award.

When Nathan Gianneschi found out he would be the recipient of an award from the President of the United States, he was naturally overjoyed.

A professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), the 33-year-old was honoured in November 2010 with a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

The awards are the highest honour bestowed by the US government on early career researchers, recognising outstanding work by those who show exceptional leadership potential in their fields.

For Dr Gianneschi, this was not only a chance to meet US President Barack Obama, but also to receive recognition from the highest office in the nation for the work he and his team had been undertaking.

Dr Gianneschi is developing advanced hybrid nanomaterials that combine naturally occurring molecules - such as DNA and protein - with man-made molecules. He was nominated for the award by the US Department of Defense, which will provide him with a research grant to continue his work.

It's a significant milestone for the researcher who, since graduating from the University of Adelaide with a Bachelor of Science (Honours) in 1999, has worked in the field of nanoscience and materials, chemistry and biochemistry at Northwestern University (PhD, 2005) and the Scripps Research Institute (postdoctoral fellow, 2008) before joining UCSD in 2008 where he heads his own research team.

"I was ecstatic," Dr Gianneschi says of the award, which saw him join more than 80 other recipients from across the nation to meet President Obama at the White House in Washington DC. "It's a fantastic thing (to receive) and it makes you realise that there are a lot of good people out there doing a lot of good science."

The experience is among a number of career highlights for Dr Gianneschi, who in 2005 also won an inorganic chemistry award for his research and received a Dow Foundation Fellowship through the American Australian Association, which was awarded to him by the Chairman and CEO of News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch.

Born in Canberra and raised in Melbourne, Singapore and Saudi Arabia, Nathan Gianneschi spent his childhood wherever his father's career in the oil industry would take him. In 1994 the family moved to Adelaide, where he enrolled as a student at Rostervor College, and completed his Year 12.

Although originally planning to do medicine, his high school grades weren't quite enough to earn him direct admission into the medical program at the University of Adelaide (his father's alma mater). He decided instead to pursue a science degree, with hopes of undertaking a postgraduate medical degree elsewhere on completion.

By the time he reached the second year of his Bachelor of Science program, those plans were beginning to be replaced by a new sense of wonder and excitement for science - more specifically, for the potential for nanoscience (and inorganic chemistry in particular) to mimic biological systems.

"I thought: what if you could make something that had the kind of structural complexity that's impossible in chemistry but is so readily available in biology? That really fascinated me," he says.
"Of course, people at the time had already been getting into this, they had looked at the idea of mimicking biological systems using inorganic chemistry for many years, but I just didn't know that at the time.

"Could we build synthetic systems with the complexity of biological ones? That na´ve question has really led me to where I am now."

Today, Dr Gianneschi sits at what he describes as the "interface of different fields within chemistry".

"There's a medical school at UC San Diego, a strong chemical-biology program here, a very strong inorganic chemistry division, and a lot of great organic chemists; and here's me, sitting at the interface, wanting to make materials that could find their way from benchtop to clinic. This place really offers the opportunity to do that."

He says nanoscience has a lot to learn from nature.
"Billions of years of evolution have given us very specific biological molecule interactions, and very precise but very complex biological systems. Can we use those components in synthetic systems? They could be used to build smart materials, for example, such as self-healing materials - like a paint that when scratched would reseal itself - or materials that change shape in response to their environment, so that they learn about their environment and adapt.

"We're interested in applying this work in all sorts of different settings, such as in materials science, in nano-electronics and also in medical sciences. It's not all about human health, but that's certainly a big driver for us."

Dr Gianneschi says he is grateful for his experience as an undergraduate student at the University of Adelaide.

"It was a great experience at Adelaide. The opportunities from that background and the interaction with so many different scientists set me up. I came to this illustrious American institution with a really solid background. You never stand up and say 'thanks for educating me', but I am thankful," he says. ■

Story David Ellis

Left: Dr Nathan Gianneschi
Photo by Kim McDonald, courtesy of the University of California, San Diego.

Left: Dr Nathan Gianneschi
Photo by Kim McDonald, courtesy of the University of California, San Diego.

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