Bridging Worlds – From Agatha Christie to Nanoscience Mysteries; a Chat with Frontiers Speaker Jwa-Min Nam
November 10, 2023
Frontiers in Nanotechnology speaker Jwa-Min Nam gave us a preview of his upcoming seminar on his work to address challenges and unlock solutions in biosensing, bioimaging, therapeutics, and explore their role in nanochemistry.
Q: Welcome back, Jwa-Min! This isn’t your first time at Northwestern. Can you share a bit about your previous stint here?
Jwa-Min Nam: I did my PhD at Northwestern from 2000 to 2004 under Chad Mirkin and Mark Ratner. I was kind of joint student between Chad and Mark. This visit is my first since then – Chad invited me during Facebook chat.
Q: What was it like working with Chad?
Jwa-Min Nam: Chad is an energetic and demanding mentor, and I liked that. Working with him was both challenging and rewarding. As a PhD student, you want to learn something new, earn that degree, and open that next chapter in your life. Chad was very professional and passionate about what he is doing. The chemistry between us was great.
Q: As you return to Northwestern, what are you looking forward to the most?
Jwa-Min Nam: Walking around campus and catching up with friends. Nathan Gianneschi and I were lab mates, and he’s a very good friend. I am looking forward to meeting many familiar faces at Northwestern.
Q: Your lecture is titled “Chemical Nanoplasmonics: From Nanoparticle Synthesis to Surface-Enhanced Spectroscopic and Biomedical Applications.” Can you give us a sneak peek into what attendees can expect?
Jwa-Min Nam: It’s about understanding the interaction between light and matter. Metallic matter has a lot of free electrons that facilitates this interaction; by controlling the size, shape, and composition of this matter, you can control their interactions. So you try to analyze and understand that. And actually, you kind of figure out what kind of matter is best for stronger interaction and try to synthesize that. Based on that understanding and synthetic skill, you use this kind of material for anything with a particular signal and use that for detecting a biological signal from protein or DNA, for example.
Q: What excites you most about the future of your field?
Jwa-Min Nam: Understanding the interaction between light and material is a key focus. We’ve been doing all these things for over ten years, and we’re at the stage where we can now synthesize these things very precisely so we can utilize them for biosensing applications. For example, with cancer, it’s very difficult to detect a small, tiny amount of this biomarker, especially at an early stage. We might be able to do that in the near future.
So take what we are doing and combine it with AI to analyze very complex signals. The human eye cannot differentiate very complex optical signals, but AI can help you with reliable clinical samples from the hospital.
In the near future, we can commercialize these things and try to make them really useful in clinical setups. Maybe doing blood screening, in all the stages of diagnosis, without spending too much time and money can make it so a lot of people can do it and save a lot of lives.
Q: Speaking of AI, where do you see it taking us in the future?
Jwa-Min Nam: AI is transformative. With AI, the best thing is where you train them with the data set. In my case, you give them the optical signal, and a thousand patient samples, sometimes 10,000 patient samples, with other information like age, other medical history, and gender. We train them, and if you train them long enough with enough data, maybe they can start to think about it.
The potential is immense, and it’s it’s akin to how the view of airplanes shifted over the past century. AI’s ability to analyze vast datasets opens up new possibilities that we can’t fully project at this point.
Q: With about 25 people in your group, how do you know when they’re ready for the next step in their careers?
Jwa-Min Nam: Thinking ahead is crucial. They need to align their work with their passion and strengths, considering the long-term impact. Loving what you do is essential for a fulfilling career. Money shouldn’t be the sole motivator.
Q: You’re a sought-after speaker. What do you think makes you in demand?
Jwa-Min Nam: Beyond scientific expertise, storytelling and personality play a significant role. Being able to connect on a personal level makes the scientific content more engaging. Relationships matter, both with colleagues and students. Typically, when you’re young, you only think about science. You have to be good at science and then tell your own story. Otherwise, it’s kind of boring to listen to.
Q: If they were to make a movie about you, what would it be called?
Jwa-Min Nam: I’d go with “A Man of Mystery.” I developed a love for science through reading mystery books in middle school. Science, to me, is about solving mysteries, and that’s what makes it exciting. My favorite quote is “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed (Albert Einstein)”.
Q: Who was your favorite mystery author?
Jwa-Min Nam: Agatha Christie, especially “And Then There Were None” and “Murder on the Orient Express.” When I was 12 or 13 years old, I read more than 100 books that year. That gave me ideas about mysterious things, including science. Science is about solving the mystery. That’s why it’s so exciting.
Q: Any particular moment that had a significant impact on your life?
Jwa-Min Nam: The passing of my father around the time I finished my PhD at Northwestern was life-changing. It made me reconsider my plans, and I eventually returned to Korea for personal reasons. These events reshape my perspective and future.
Q: Do you miss spending time in the lab?
Jwa-Min Nam: When you’re younger, you have to train your students. Ten years ago, I only had a few students. Now that I have 20 so people, you can’t spend time with all of them. You cannot just spend time in the lab with just three out of 20 students. I miss it for various reasons. It’s exciting in there. You do certain things based on an idea; you observe it and see what happens based on your idea right in front of your eye, like solving a murder mystery at the scene of crime based on your own inference That’s really kind of fun part in the lab.
Q: How do you unwind outside of work?
Jwa-Min Nam: During the pandemic, I picked up golf – an activity you can do with only a couple of other people and can keep your distance from each other.
Q: How can people keep track of your work?
I am not really on social media, so my lab’s website thenamlab.org.