Faculty Profile: Nan Jokerst — Engineering on Smaller Scales

By Monte Basgall

Fresh from 14 successful years at Georgia Institute of Technology, during which her research drew praise and her teaching drew national recognition, Nan Marie Jokerst has come to the Pratt School of Engineering to advance her research and teaching even more dramatically.

In fact, the new professor of electrical engineering and computer science said she arrived at Duke a year early to prepare facilities for what she believes will be major research achievements.

She and her research partner and husband, associate professor Martin Brooke, will help design and set up a new clean room where advanced materials, devices and systems will be fabricated within the still-under-construction Center for Interdisciplinary Engineering, Medicine and Applied Sciences. "We're going to have a really stunning, unique facility in a year and a half or so," she declared with an infectious enthusiasm during an interview in her office in Hudson Hall, which faces the nascent center.

The clean room, where the air will be highly filtered, will enable experimental components to emerge from the new Center for the Integrated Nano and Micro Integrated Systems Center that she will direct.

Research in the center could lead to "revolutionary" kinds of medical instrumentation and sensors, she said.

Her center is envisioned as a collaborative hub for interdisciplinary research. This will include clean room-built experimental systems that combine organic and inorganic materials into devices at the millionths (micro) and billionths (nano) of a meter scales.

All these components could be made to work together on a single fingernail-sized chip, she said. This means that engineers could perhaps shrink entire chemical analyses laboratories down to Lilliputian size, for example, or enable physicians to carry an entire clinical laboratory in their pockets.

Other possibilities might include "tiny flying mechanical bugs" that will sense chemical and biological agents with the aid of global positioning satellites and radio frequency transmissions, she said.

Jokerst set the stage for such advances at Georgia Tech, where she, Brooke and other members of an interdisciplinary team integrated electronic (digital and analog) signals with those of radio, light and micromechanical devices. That led to applications such as a chemical sensor on a silicon chip, low-cost optical fibers for automobiles, and an artificial retina, she said.

At Duke she is already working with her department chairwoman, fellow former Yellow Jacket April Brown, on "biological organisms that rotate, which we might be able to use for optical switching," she said.

During her years on the Georgia Tech faculty, which she joined following her Ph.D. at the University of Southern California, she said she assembled a number of interdisciplinary collaborative research groups.

She also received a prestigious Presidential Young Investigator award through the National Science Foundation, in the same year she was named Georgia Tech's Best Teacher in Electrical Engineering. She is also a Fellow of the IEEE and the Optical Society of America.

The teaching honor she is most proud of is her 2002 Harriett B. Rigas Award from the IEEE Education Society and the Hewlett Packard Corp., which she called an extremely competitive national recognition.

"I hear that the students here are just fabulous," she said. "So I really look forward to having some of them work with my group at the research level." Then Jokerst confessed that when she was a student classwork "was low on my totem pole.

"I think classes are artificial environments where we try to shove information into students' brains," she said. "I really think showing students what you can do with that information -- to motivate them -- is very, very important. I always start my classes with a motivation. I ask my students, 'If I want to build this, what do I have to know?'"

Jokerst "grew up as a very independent person" in St. Louis, she said. After her mother died when she was 16, she had to rise to the challenges of interacting with her businessman father and two younger brothers. In addition to traditional family chores, she also repaired the family washing machine, stove and air conditioner. And at school she excelled in physics and mathematics.

While an undergraduate at Creighton University majoring in physics and math (there was no engineering school) she machined the parts and built a nitrogen laser "from scratch" guided by an issue of the "Scientific American" and her "machine shop pals." She also received a life-changing summer internship at IBM's prestigious Watson Research Center.

At the Watson lab a top IBM researcher convinced her that "I could apply anywhere to graduate school and be accepted, and that I could have a career as one of the top people in my field," she said. So "I applied to 12 graduate schools and got accepted everywhere."

Outside the lab Jokerst is an ardent environmentalist, naturalist, organic gardener and vegetarian cook. She and Brooke also have two young children. "We're a no-TV kind of family, so we spend a lot of quality time with out kids, especially outdoors" she said. "They are really the centers of our lives."