Christopher Murray and the
Modular Assembly of Matter

There are applied scientists, there are theoretical scientists, and then there’s Christopher Murray.

At IBM, where he was a “master inventor” in the research division and managed the nanoscale materials and devices department, Murray helped to develop intricately structured thin magnetic films that pushed the limit for how small conventional computer memory can be. He was also a patent evaluator known for making some pretty novel things himself—self-assembling artificial atoms, for instance.

Since coming to Penn, one of his most exciting encounters was meeting his new colleague Nader Engheta, the H. Nedwill Ramsey Professor of electrical and systems engineering, who was, as Murray enthusiastically recalls, “using these computational methods to think about materials that did not exist.”

That was just the kind of thing that fired Murray up about research the way it’s conducted in academia. In short order, he was collaborating with a small group that had cohered around Engheta’s speculations. Their project: bringing his nonexistent materials into being.


“The part that’s so exciting,” says the Richard Perry University Professor, whose appointments are in chemistry in the School of Arts and Sciences and materials science in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, “is that even before he knew it could be made, [Engheta] said it would be fascinating if someone could produce this arrangement of materials with these set properties. There was no obvious route at that time in terms of how that might be achieved, but he had the vision to think about what would be the interesting combinations and not to worry about the fabrication side too much. And once we saw what he was doing, it became clear that some of the assembly methods that were being used might actually allow you to make the kind of spatial arrangements he was targeting!

“It’s a really good example of where theory can actually help lead and motivate the experimental side.”

If you had to pick just one poster prof for the PIK initiative, Murray would be hard to pass up. In less than two years on campus, he has tuned his intellectual antennae to seemingly every frequency on the academic dial.

The students in his lab build systems from simple chemical precursors, characterize their physical properties using electromicroscopy and x-ray techniques, and then work on integrating them into new devices. Meanwhile, their professor has networked with Penn’s computing community, hooked up with chemistry department colleague Andrew Rappe to explore novelties in theoretical ferroelectrics, and started delving into life-sciences applications by way of Penn’s Nano/Bio Interface Center.

On top of that, he says, “You have people like Jonathan Moreno [see page 36], who’s been thinking about aspects of bioethics … so there’ll be a community of people who take up the challenge of what this technology is going to bring. Each time you have the ability to manipulate materials in a more diverse set of arrays, you have to ask the question, Where are we headed with all this?

“And you know in the Wharton School, there’s already a number of researchers who’ve been tracking the early stages of how the extension of our fabrication and scientific capabilities are beginning to impact small start-ups and larger industries as well,” he goes on. “So that’s also something that I think, campus-wide, leads to some very interesting exchanges.”

Murray’s research agenda is also an integrative enterprise in the most literal way. He is trying to figure out how to combine structures at the atomic level in order to capture the physics of multiple systems within a single material.

“So by taking two nanometer-scale building blocks, if you will, and connecting them at dimensions where they begin to talk to each other and there’s a mixing of properties, you can produce assemblies, for example, that have both magnetic and optical responses, and each is tunable independently,” he explains. “It’s this idea of not just building the individual building blocks, but to push on in this direction where we can do a modular assembly of matter, and really begin to mix and match the best properties of many different classes of material.”

As with much leading-edge research in science and engineering, it’s anyone’s guess where these explorations will lead. From Murray’s perspective, that means now is the time to maximize the potential of nanotechnology research at Penn.

“What we hope will be a good opportunity is that as we plan and develop facilities for nanoscale characterization, we continue to build in the kinds of capabilities that are attractive to the life-sciences communities, because that’s the kind of mixing that we really want to have,” he says. “Things in terms of microfluidics, or the ability to integrate some biological systems into fabricated devices—sensors and so on.”

Spend an hour chatting with him, and it’s easy to see why MIT’s Technology Review magazine named Murray in its inaugural list of the top innovators under 35 back in 1999. If anything, the shift from industry to the ivory tower has charged him up with even more enthusiasm. And his recruitment to Penn, says Amy Gutmann, is an example of how the PIK program has allowed the University to respond to the changing academic marketplace.

“If you ask, Is Chris Murray one of the foremost scholars in nanoscience and technology?, the answer is yes,” Penn’s president says. “ But where did we find Chris Murray? We found him outside of the university context.”

These days, he could hardly be more ensconced—or more optimistic about the interdisciplinary ethos whose contagion he is doing everything within his power to spread.

“Within the School of Arts and Sciences, and the leadership in the School of Engineering, there’s a recognition now that science and technology is one of the areas where, with proper investments and tooling, we can enable projects that cross many, many departments,” he enthuses. 

“We need to support this work and use it as a way to draw in talent and get people really working together. At a place like Penn—with its diverse programs, from life sciences to very hardcore engineering and basic science, through to even the social implications of nanotechnology and all of those other dimensions—we have a unique opportunity to bring all of those different talents together to really make a difference.”

Sept|Oct 08 Contents
Gazette Home

Proof of Concept By Trey Popp
Illustration by Daniel Chang

page 1 > 2 > 3 > 4 > 5 > 6 > 7

page 1 > 2 > 3 > 4 > 5 > 6 > 7

©2008 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 08/25/08