Welcome Nicholas Abbott

CBE Professor Nicholas Abbott
  • New Faculty Year: 2018

When Nicholas Abbott was finishing up his undergraduate chemical engineering degree at Adelaide University in Australia, he knew he wanted to go abroad for his graduate studies. “At that time,” says Abbott, “most of the graduate school paths for students from Australia went through England.” Abbott had a conversation with a professor who told him about a place called the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “I had never heard of it,” says Abbott, “but it was the less conventional path and I was all for it.” Abbott applied to MIT and got accepted into a Ph.D. program in chemical engineering.

The only things he knew about MIT before he got there were what his professor had told him and what he was able to glean from the newsprint brochure the school sent him in the mail. “It had a picture of boats on the Charles River, and I thought ‘yeah, that looks nice.’ I was sure I would get my Ph.D. and then return to Australia five years later,” says Abbott--now more than thirty years later--from his office at Cornell’s Olin Hall.

In the summer of 2018 Abbott joined the faculty of the Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Cornell as a professor. In the interim, Abbott earned his doctorate, had a two-year post-doctoral research position in Chemistry at Harvard with George Whitesides, and taught at both The University of California-Davis and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. At Madison, Abbott was department chair and director of the Wisconsin Materials Research and Engineering Center. He published dozens of papers and graduated more than forty Ph.D. students.

When Abbott came to Cornell, ten of his graduate students and postdocs moved to Ithaca with him in order to continue their work.

“The research we do crosses disciplines,” says Abbott. “We work with people from the life sciences, physics, chemistry—and Cornell has a history of strong cross-disciplinary work. It feels like a good fit for me. I really liked the hiring process; Cornell did not bring me here with a specific goal for my research. I am here to explore ideas and I truly don’t know what is going to pop up. I can’t predict or anticipate the best thing that will grow out of the research we do here.”

Abbott is looking to recruit more graduate students to his lab. His group has many ongoing projects. His technical interests revolve around colloidal and interfacial phenomena. He is particularly interested in colloidal forces in liquid crystalline phases. “We focus on soft materials,” says Abbott. “The challenge is to make a material that is the result of many weak, non-covalent interactions. We want to create materials that change properties when exposed to different environments. We work with liquid crystalline materials whose molecules are able to “communicate” with each other across long distances—up to 100,000 molecules away in some cases.”

Abbott wants to use this communication ability to develop liquid crystals as chemical and biological sensors for a variety of purposes. “If we coat a surface with a layer of liquid crystals and then expose the surface to a target molecule, that exposure can perturb molecules on the sensor surface and those molecules will pass that perturbation on to their neighbors,” says Abbott. “At some point, the perturbation becomes visible and you can actually see that the target molecule is present.”

Abbott says that his time spent in the Whitesides Research Group at Harvard deeply affected how he works with graduate students. “George Whitesides is an amazingly creative and insightful individual. I learned so much as a postdoc—it was a terrific time for me. What I try to pass on to my students is a key idea of George’s: simplicity is good. And when something doesn’t go as expected in the lab, that tells you there is an opportunity to be followed.”

Abbott is excited to be at Cornell. “It is a new environment for me—a new adventure,” says Abbott. “There is something inspiring about being at a new place. It changes things and makes you feel like you have to show your value again.”

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