With Nanotechnology, Small Science Makes a Big Impact

November 2011
Jim Klemic
Jim Klemic

"I build little things, and I stick them in weird places or interface them in new and interesting ways," says Jim Klemic, a physicist in MITRE's Nanosystems Group, which has been a leader in nanotechnology research and development for almost 20 years.

Nanotechnology is engineering at the unimaginably small molecular scale, and Klemic has applied it in some unusual areas, such as nano-biotechnology. "Before I came to MITRE, I built very small electrode structures, and plugged them into living cells, to monitor cell physiology," he says.

Klemic, an applied physicist with a background in micro- and nano-fabrication, directs laboratory activities for the Nanosystems Group in MITRE's Emerging Technologies Section. His own research explores themes such as nanoforensics, nanoelectronics, and nanomaterials. He also collaborates with other investigators at MITRE on their nanotechnology R&D in areas such as nano-enabled power systems and nano-biotechnology. "In my opinion, there are some critical national security issues that nanotechnology can address," he says. "And MITRE is in an excellent position to help address them."

One way that Klemic is working to demonstrate that point is through his leadership of a nanoforensics research initiative that he hopes will make a big impact on cybersecurity applications. "We're devising molecular-scale tags that may be used for tamper indication on electronic components such as computer chips," he says. "Nano-tags could reveal whether a computer chip has been turned on or used, or whether it's a counterfeit. When people consider cybersecurity, they tend to think of software and networks, but protecting hardware is a critical component."

He says that nanotechnology can also help improve both legacy forensic science methods, and other areas like biometric analysis, which enables new applications for tagging, tracking, and verification. Klemic gave a keynote speech describing this work at a recent Department of Defense-sponsored conference on nanotechnology and forensic science.

Klemic was also part of a team of MITRE scientists and engineers who recently demonstrated the world's first programmable nanoprocessor, working in collaboration with nanotechnology researchers at Harvard University. Together, the MITRE-Harvard team developed complex computer circuits built from ultra-tiny components. The team published its work in the journal Nature in early 2011. "This project was a good example of how MITRE conducts state-of-the-art research, leverages partnerships in academia, and applies our own skill set," he says. "We built something that had never been built before, using techniques that had never been used before. It was quite exciting."

A Career Focused on Collaboration

Klemic, a Detroit native, has a keen understanding of how to work with academic researchers to produce scientific breakthroughs. He majored in physics and mathematics during his undergraduate years at Wayne State University in Michigan and earned a master's degree in applied physics from Cornell University. He also attended graduate school in physics at Case Western Reserve University and did research work at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. He arrived at MITRE four years ago, after spending many years at Yale University as a nanotechnology research scientist and lecturer. At Yale, he worked on several interdisciplinary research projects, including molecular electronics, microfluidics, proteomics, and bio-sensors. He also taught courses on micro and nanofabrication in Yale's Electrical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering departments.

"I joined MITRE because I wanted to help solve government challenges," he says. "Coming to MITRE was an exciting opportunity to conduct nanotechnology research and development, while simultaneously working with government agencies."

Klemic also enjoys the many chances he gets to join forces with fellow engineers and scientists at MITRE, whether it's building millirobots the size of cellphones, or incorporating sensors into nano applications. Working at MITRE also allows Klemic an opportunity to support tasks that assist the government outside of laboratory R&D. For example, he has been involved in MITRE's support of government efforts to defeat improvised explosive devices (IEDs). "This is a critical problem facing the warfighter," he says. "To be able to conduct laboratory research and also support key government efforts outside the lab is unique to a company like MITRE and its role as a manager of FFRDCs [federally funded research and development centers]."

Promoting Science for the Next Generation

Klemic is active in several community efforts to support technological education. "It's vital to expand American technological literacy," he emphasizes. "Even for students who don't grow up to be engineers, their ability to understand the language and concepts of science will have a significant impact on our national security and economy."

To that end, Klemic contributes his time to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) initiatives, including MITRE's Young Women in Engineering program. Middle school and high school girls spend a day at MITRE to tour labs, meet scientists and engineers, and learn about STEM careers. He also counsels the Fairfax County, Va., public school system on its emerging technologies efforts, and has served on the science-curriculum review committee for the Falls Church City, Va., schools, which his two children attend. "MITRE has a generous program offering civic time—paid time off for volunteer activities—which I have used to support these worthwhile efforts," he says.

The Nanosystems Group also has a summer student research program; select students ranging from high school through graduate school work on MITRE research projects. Klemic has mentored a number of them. "It is a real pleasure to work with such bright and talented students each year," he says.

At home, Klemic's children have picked up a lot about science and engineering from their dad as well as their mother, who is a physiologist and biomedical engineer. "They've known their way around a microscope since they were toddlers," Klemic says.

—by Cheryl Scaparrotta

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