Postdoc Fellow Zhiwei Li Draws Inspiration from Nature to Create Smart Nanostructured Materials

November 30, 2022

Zhiwei Li is a Van Duyne Postdoctoral Fellow.

Where are you originally from?

I came from Jiangsu Province in China. 

Where did you complete your undergraduate degree?

I graduated with a BS degree from Soochow University. 

When did you first become interested in chemistry?

I first became interested in chemistry when I was in high school. I began to know how to make new materials by carrying out chemical reactions and how to explain many interesting phenomena in nature using chemistry that I learned in the classroom. Through undergraduate to PhD candidate, I tried to get inspiration from nature to design new materials and to understand the chemistry world. My curiosity about chemistry continues in my postdoctoral training, until now when I use chemical science to design metamaterials, one type of man‐made materials not existing in nature.


How do you explain what you study to non-scientists?

I am interested in colloidal particle synthesis and the assembly of diverse building blocks into superstructures. Depending on the chemical compositions and shapes of the colloidal particles, I apply physical chemistry and material science to control the architectures of these superstructures in nanometer precision, modulate their collective physicochemical properties, and design smart functional materials for solving existing challenges in research. Like architects designing beautiful skyscrapers with blocks, I create smart nanostructured materials down to a microscopic, small world using tiny materials‐colloidal particles‐as building blocks.


What has inspired you to focus on nanostructures and metamaterials and what do you hope to achieve?

I get inspiration from the natural world. Observing what is happening every day and understanding these interesting phenomena always inspire me to think differently. It encourages me to design a biomimetic approach to smart nanostructures and metamaterials, with properties not found in naturally occurring materials. I focus on using nanotechnology and chemical science to assemble interesting superstructures and to discover new materials with extraordinary properties, which can be used to solve existing challenges in optics, nanomedicine, and robotics.


What has been a highlight of your time at Northwestern?

Every moment when I see beautiful and inspiring superstructures under electron microscopes. I focus on DNA‐programmable assembly strategies to design superstructures using nanoparticles as building blocks. Creating new design rules is always my research goal to extend the
frontiers of DNA‐programmable matters. They are beautiful and artistically subtle in a way that science stands out. I find it fascinating.


What has been the most challenging aspect of your work or your time at Northwestern?

Thinking outside the box is the most challenging aspect of my research but is critical to developing new ideas. At the International Institute of Nanotechnology at Northwestern, I have many opportunities to talk to young talents with diverse research backgrounds and expertise. This training and collaborative work prepare me for exciting research in my independent scientific career.


Can you tell me about your experiences either being mentored or mentoring others?

Mentorship is critically important in scientific research. As a postdoctoral scholar at Northwestern, I really appreciate the mentorship that I have received from Prof. Mirkin. He also encourages me to think about fundamental questions beneath many interesting experimental phenomena. Besides, being a mentor to undergraduate or graduate students is also an important aspect of my research. It tarins me to think about questions in different ways and prepare me for developing skills for my own research.


What are your hobbies outside of the lab?

I enjoy playing basketball on weekends with friends and family. Sometimes, I spend time staying and playing card games with my family and hiking or biking in the woods near Evanston and Chicago.


How can people stay up to date on your work?

You can follow me on Twitter @ZhiweiL68866576.