Mark Ratner

Dumas University Professor at Northwestern University and Co-Director of the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern.

Interviewed By

Maria Kaufman

Published On

May 2016

Originally Published

NURJ 2016-17

Leslie Zhang

After completing his PhD at Northwestern University in 1969, Dr. Mark Ratner went on to have a prolific career in materials chemistry exploring the relationship between molecular structure and molecular properties. He has authored multiple books about nanotechnology and is excited about the many ways in which nanotechnology may affect the future of our society, including advances in medicine and renewable energy. Today, he is a Co-Director of the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN) and a recipient of many prestigious awards, including the Feynman Prize and the Langmuir Award of the American Chemical Society.

What do you think about the role of collaboration in research?

The unique thing about Northwestern is we collaborate. So almost all of the papers that I have written have been co-authored with people at Northwestern, sometimes people in Israel, people in Sweden, Denmark in particular, the Netherlands – guys in Canada, Brazil, Japan, Australia, Korea. But mostly the collaborations are within this and that building, Tech,because the folks are just so good. The fields are so highly complex, that it really, really helps to have somebody else.That’s the way all of us work at Northwestern. Because of this nature, we’ve drawn a large number of undergraduates, graduate students and postdocs who recognize that chemistry in the 21st century is extremely complex, and that two minds are better than one. And three minds are better than two. But that collaboration is what we’ve done here at Northwestern, and what has worked out extremely well. Since I’ve been at Northwestern, we’ve had two Nobel Prizes in chemistry and infinite other awards. I think the most important thing is that we’ve trained those undergraduates, graduate students and postdocs to a very, very high level.

As a co-director of the Institute for Sustainability and Energy (ISEN) at Northwestern, how do you relate your work in nanotechnology to sustainable energy?

Well, that’s about 50% of what my group does now, and there are three ways you can think about this: First, you need to store the energy. Suppose you had a windmill, and it is generating hundreds of thousands of watts. It doesn’t work all the time – sometimes there’s no wind. So you need to have a way to store energy. There are a bunch of ways that are possible, the most obvious being a battery. So, improving batteries is the slowest of the three advances. The fastest of the three advances is probably wind. The second is the current President of the United States said he was going to renew the coal capital - it’s going to be impossible to do that, actually. Because it just doesn’t pay. And the third thing in sustainable energy that I’ve been involved with, is trying to capture sunlight. That is a very challenging thing. But we collaborate with people, mostly in England and in Canada, who are just terrific. So, when we started you had about 4% efficiency. Now it’s up to about 18% efficiency – now if it gets up to 25% efficiency, it’s going to be earth-changing because that’s enough to essentially run the world.

How did Northwestern become such a big player in the field of renewable energy research?

Actually, the whole thing starts with undergraduates. And when Morty became President, you know he loves the undergraduates, and the first thing he did was call a bunch of faculty members, including me, and a lot of students in one of the big rooms in Tech. It went on for three hours. And what he heard, and what I heard was, other universities all have efforts on renewable energy, why don’t we? And that really pushed the button and started all this stuff up. So, you know, the university is only important because of its students. And that was one place where the students really made it happen.

What role do you think undergraduates can play in research?

I can remember being an undergraduate, and the only bad thing was the clock. There was never enough time to do what you wanted to do. I mean, if you wanted to keep up your exercise, do your studies, pal around with some people and get to introduce yourself to new ideas and new things - well, there’s only 24/7. So, most of the undergraduates that have worked with me have actually worked with either a graduate student or a post-doc, so that they had somebody who could oversee what they were doing. Some of them have been really terrific, and gone off and done spectacular things – and not all in science. Probably, when the group was big, when I had 20 students and postdocs, there were 3 or 4 undergraduates all the time. Mostly in the summer, because it’s a little bit easier then – you don’t have classes, you can just work. And I’ve had a number of really, really good students from all parts of the world, different genders, different religions, different dress, different everything. But the science brings them together. It brings us together.