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Dr. Nancy A. Burnham

Professor of Physics and Biomedical Engineering

Department of Physics, Worcester Polytechnic Institute,
100 Institute Road, Worcester, MA 01609-2280 USA
Phone: (508) 831-5365, Fax: (508) 831-5886
E-mail: nab@wpi.edu, Olin Hall 219



The study of the interaction of the last few atoms on a sharply pointed tip with a sample surface is my first love. Usually performed via Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM), one of the many variants of scanning probe microscopy, this technique has several levels. The first is the three dimensional imaging of surfaces with nanometer-scale resolution. Under special circumstances, even individual atoms can be discerned. The second is using the force-sensing tip as a probe of the materials properties – such as modulus and damping – of modern materials such as tissue-growth substrates, bacterial "hairs", microsensor surfaces, asphalt binders, and geologic substrates. The third level is to learn about how small numbers of atoms interact, physically or chemically, by directly measuring their force interactions. Essential to all research aspects are a thorough understanding of how the instrument affects the measurements and proper data interpretation.


Nancy Burnham graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1987 with a Ph.D. in Physics.  Her dissertation concerned the surface analysis of photovoltaic materials. As a National Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at the Naval Research Laboratory, she became interested in scanning probe microscopy, in particular its application to detecting material properties at the nanoscale.  After three years as a von Humboldt Fellow in Germany at Forschungszentrum Julich, she spent another six years in Europe, principally at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland, all the while pursuing the mechanical properties of nanostructures and instrumentation for nanomechanics.  Her international experience also includes sejours at the University of Bordeaux, Tokyo Institute of Technology, the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, and ETH Zurich.  She arrived at WPI in January of 2000 and is now a Full Professor.  Furthermore, she became affiliated with the Biomedical Engineering Department in 2012 and started directing WPI's Switzerland Project Center in 2015.

Invited, tutorial, or plenary speaker at over 50 conferences, author or co-author of over 100 publications with over 14,000 citations (h-index 38), she is as well active in professional societies as, e.g.,
Treasurer of the Nanoscience and Technology Division of the AVS.  She was the recipient of the 2001 Nanotechnology Recognition Award from the latter organization, was a 2002 Institute of Physics of Ireland Lecturer, and became a Fellow of the AVS in 2010.  Two of her articles were featured among the 25 highlighted publications for the 25th anniversary of the journal Nanotechnology in 2014, out of nearly 12,000 articles.  She also enjoys teaching physics and nanoscience, from the introductory up to the graduate level.

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March 2019