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Don Baer

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Don Baer

Laboratory Fellow
EMSL Lead Scientist,
Interfacial Chemistry

Pacific Northwest
National Laboratory
Richland, Washington
United States


  • BS Physics, Carnegie Mellon University
  • PhD Physics, Cornell University

Work Focus:

"Conducting research involving environmentally and energy relevant molecular level understanding of interfaces and helping lead the science theme and capability development for our National Department of Energy User Facility the Environmental Molecular Science Laboratory (EMSL)."

Advice to Students:

"Get a good solid background in a science or engineering field of interest to you.  In addition, take as many courses "outside" your major area as possible.  Nanoscience and nanotechnology are inherently cross-disciplinary and you need to learn the different concepts and the languages of different sciences."


  - Pacific Northwest National Laboratory


Q: When did you first find that your career path focused on nanotechnology?
In many ways interfaces are very thin and thus nano in size.  In that sense, I have been doing nano-science of interfaces since 1976.  However, in 1997 I was asked how I would suggest making some aspects of microtechnology better.  My simple answer was to add "smart" nanostructures to them.  My research has formally involved aspects of nanoscience and nanotechnology since that time.     

Q: What current nanotechnology applications are you working on?  
Although I do fundamental research to understand behaviors of nanoparticles and other nano-structured materials, my primary focus is on the interaction of nano-materials with environmental contaminants.   Another significant focus is on adequate characterization of nano-structured materials.  In my view, the community can do this better with tools that we already have and we also need to develop new tools.      

Q: What's the most rewarding thing about working with nanotechnology?
It is an exciting and rapidly evolving area. It is particularly rewarding to identify important areas that many researchers are ignoring and conduct work in those areas.

Q: Is there an example you can provide that shows how something you've worked on has positively impacted the world?
Much of the fundamental work we do may impact the world at some time, but it is not always obvious.  However, some of our fundamental work has a strong influence on the engineers and technology developers who are actually out there solving problems.  I think this is true for our iron nanoparticle work related to the reduction of contaminants in ground water.  In addition, many groups and agencies need help in understanding what they need to know about nano-materials to work with them.  Some of our efforts dealing with the adequate characterization of nanoparticles, how they change in the environment and their related behavior appears to be having an impact on research projects around the world.

Q: What do you think is the single greatest impact nanotechnology has had on the world thus far?  
Since there are nano-layers in current generation computers, this must be the greatest technology impact to date.   However, nanotechnology has altered the way we think about materials, how we think about combining them, and has excited many young researchers with new ideas.  I think that the altered ways of thinking about the materials and what we can do and expect from them, and how we assemble them may actually be the greatest impact of all.  Scientists around the world are focused on this research and in some ways that has re-energized some areas of science and several areas of technology.

Q: Please give an example of what you envision nanotechnology applications leading to in the future. 
An interesting thing about real nanotechnology is that I don't care if it is "nano." I care about what it does and how it functions.  I think that nanotechnology will eventually change the nature of manufacturing (hopefully lowering cost and environmental impact), have a major impact on our ability to sense what is happening in the environment, and provide major new tools for health monitoring and treatment of diseases. In most cases the fact that it is "nano" will be overshadowed by the fact that it does something useful.

Q: Do you find yourself working more in a team situation, or more alone?
At my National Laboratory we work more often in teams than otherwise.  It has been true since I arrived at the laboratory, but is increasingly important.

Q: If you work more as a team, what are some of the other areas of expertise of your team members?
Several years ago my research group included a physicist, a bioengineer, a physical chemist, and electrochemist, a marine biologist, and a material scientist.   We have found that cross disciplinary teams often work exceptionally well.

Q: Did your university training help you in your nanotechnology work?
Although I am trained as a physicist, I am told that much of my work is chemistry.  However, the chemists that I work with tell me that I think like a physicist, with some good (reasonable) chemical insight.  I learn a lot from others, but also bring a perspective and understanding that contributes to the team.  I would conclude that my university training does help, but it only provides the strong base of understanding new things.

Q: Do you have a mentor?  Did you in your college years?
When I came to the laboratory, I worked on a project with a more senior scientist who taught me the value of working in teams and also the way to allow different team members to achieve personal success and to enhance team success. At the moment I try to assist other staff members and students.

Q: If you had to do it all over again, would you still focus on nanotechnology applications?
Since nanoscience and nanotechnology are natural and logical extensions of several areas of science I strongly suspect I would do it again.  However, I am not doing it because it is nano.  I am doing it because it is where exciting science is being done.  It is also appropriate to add that I personally look for the areas where there are interesting and important science questions AND where not everyone else is working. There is currently lots of room for great science and technology that is nano-related. However there are also fads of "hot" topics.  I do my best to stay away from these specific areas.

Q: If a high school or college student was interested in nanotechnology, what advice would you give them to help prepare take on those roles?  
Get a good solid background in a science or engineering field of interest to you.  In addition, take as many courses "outside" your major area as possible.  Nanoscience and nanotechnology are inherently cross-disciplinary and you need to learn the different concepts and the languages of different sciences.

Q: What other advice do you have for pre-university students?
It is helpful to keep your mind open to new possibilities and new ideas.  In your career it is helpful if you follow your passion because if you think it is only "your job" success will be illusive.  It can be difficult to know what will excite you so you may need to try different things and in many cases they will be more difficult than you think, at least at first.  Don't be too focused (I must do a specific thing), but don't give up too easily.  I have found that it is sometimes the more challenging projects or tasks that can prove to be very satisfying in the end.  However, if you find yourself working in one area but thinking about another, you may be doing the wrong thing.