As part of the Caroline Werner Gannet Project to attract innovators in art, science, and technology, RIT hosted Dr. Esther Conwell for a presentation on her research into the conductive properties of DNA. Conwell is one of the world’s foremost female physicists and has had a long career that stretches back to WWII. She has worked as an assistant to several Nobel Prize winners and has done extensive research work for Xerox. In 1994 she became the first, and thus far only, woman to win the IEEE Edison Medal for her research of semiconductors and organic conductors. Last year, President Obama presented her with the National Medal of Science for her contributions to the understanding of electron transport and encouraging women to enter scientific fields. She is presently a professor at the University of Rochester in the Chemistry and Physics departments.
During her talk on Thursday, September 15, Dr. Conwell chose to discuss her most recent research, some of which has not yet been published due to ongoing experimentation. The goal of her work is to determine if unaltered DNA can conduct an electric charge and how the DNA could be modified to increase that ability. In the past, conductivity tests of DNA were wildly inconclusive, but more recent studies have determined that it is in fact a semiconductor with a moderate ability to transport electrons.
Dr. Conwell’s research suggests that DNA could potentially be used to make microcircuits. Unfortunately, the current measurements of electron transport speed are simply too low to be of much use. She explained that “there are ways of making DNA imperfect so that it can conduct.” One way is by modifying the sequence of nitrogenous bases, since different sequences will affect the speed of the electron transport in different ways. Cytosine-guanine pairs will transport the fastest, but their presence poses a risk because they can react with oxygen during the experiment and disrupt measurements, so only adenine-thymine pairs are used right now. Alteration of the molecular structure of the DNA has also proven helpful, as it creates a better environment to encourage electron transport. The flexibility of the structure of DNA, the ease with which it can be replenished and repaired, and the very low cost of mass production make it an excellent material to work with. If the speed of transport can be raised to a level that rivals that of the silicon currently used in microcircuits, DNA could potentially replace silicon in computer construction altogether. If her research can manage to increase the conductivity of DNA as she hopes, it may be the first step in making the smallest circuits in existence.
The evening concluded with a question and answer session. There was a significant amount of interest in the potential applications of DNA microcircuits. Interestingly, questions for Dr. Conwell were focused on both her research and the challenges she has faced as a woman in a male-dominated field. She explained how her mentor in graduate school didn’t take her seriously because of her gender. Later in her career, when she requested a few months of maternity leave from her company, she was taken off payroll because “they didn’t think I was coming back.” The interesting combination of scientific discussion and Dr. Conwell’s perspective as one of the few women in her field made for a unique and memorable kick off to the fifth year of the Gannet Project.