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Oral history interview with Nadrian C. Seeman

  • 2011-Dec-05 – 2011-Dec-06

Oral history interview with Nadrian C. Seeman

  • 2011-Dec-05 – 2011-Dec-06

Nadrian C. Seeman grew up an only child in Highland Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. His father owned a fur store, and his mother had been a teacher. He was inspired by his high school biology teacher to focus on the interface between the physical and biological sciences. Seeman entered the pre-med program at the University of Chicago, but soon switched his major to biochemistry. He next obtained his PhD in crystallography from the University of Pittsburgh; then took a postdoc at Columbia University, working with Cyrus Levinthal, and a second postdoc in Alexander Rich's lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Rich discovered hybridization, which is the basis of all of Seeman's DNA nanotechnology work although he never really appreciated it at the time. Seeman began his professional career in the biology department at State University of New York at Albany. He went to Leiden, Holland, to learn to make DNA. When Neville Kallenbach left the University of Pennsylvania to become chairman of the chemistry department at New York University, he recruited Seeman to join the NYU faculty.

Seeman was influenced by the Escher print Depth to develop both three-dimensional (cube-like and similar) lattices of DNA, a process requiring branched DNA and sticky ends. This work Seeman calls "structural DNA nanotechnology," which he defines as "using the chemical information in DNA to control the three-dimensional structure of objects, lattices, and nanomechanical devices." As a result he is often referred to as the father of DNA nanotechnology. (He says he is sometimes called the father of single-stranded synthetic DNA topology because he recognized that DNA is the ideal synthetic topological component. ) He founded the International Society for Nanoscale Science, Computation, and Engineering (ISNSCE), whose members are mostly computer scientists, physicists and chemists. His biophysical work analyzing branched DNA and its ramifications was funded by National Institutes of Health. He headed a Nanotechnology Interdisciplinary Research Team (NIRT) working on DNA-based nanomechanical devices; it was funded by the National Science Foundation. He has had funding from the U. S. Navy, the U. S. Army, the Department of Energy and briefly had support from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). He feels that other applications of his work include nanoelectronics and a way to look at what happens in living systems on the molecular scale by using DNA crystals to scaffold biomacromolecules to establish their structures and interactions with other species.

Seeman shared the 2010 Kavli Prize in Nanoscience from the Norwegian Academy of Sciences with Donald Eigler for their "development of unprecedented methods to control matter on the nanoscale." Seeman, in a picture with Eigler and President Obama, is wearing his best—indeed his only—suit, which he bought in Hong Kong on his way to Oslo; he tells a humorous story of the Kavli notification phone call. Seeman founded the field, but there are now more than a hundred groups worldwide in DNA nanotechnology; Seeman names about two dozen of them. Seeman's current work deals with extending the crystallographic aspects of his DNA constructs, as well as automatic molecular weaving. Seeman concludes his interview with a discussion of his extensive travel.

Property Value
Place of interview
  • 144 pages
  • 06:13:00
Rights Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Rights holder
  • Science History Institute
Credit line
  • Courtesy of Science History Institute

About the Interviewer

W. Patrick McCray is a professor in the Department of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In 2011–12, he was also the Eleanor Searle Visiting Professor in the History of Science at the California Institute of Technology. McCray entered the historians’ profession via his original career as a scientist. He has degrees in materials science and engineering from the University of Pittsburgh (BS and MS, 1989 and 1991) and the University of Arizona (PhD, 1996). He also held an NSF STS postdoctoral fellowship (1998–99) and served as an Associate Historian at the American Institute of Physics (2000–2003). He has written widely on the history of science and technology after 1945. His book Giant Telescopes: Astronomical Ambition and the Promise of Technology (Harvard University Press, 2004) explored how scientists build and use today’s most modern telescopes. A subsequent project examined the activities of citizen-scientists during the Cold War (Keep Watching the Skies: The Story of Operation Moonwatch and the Dawn of the Space Age (Princeton University Press, 2008)). After he arrived at UCSB in 2003, McCray became interested in the history of nanotechnology. He is a founding member and co-PI for the NSF-funded Center for Nanotechnology in Society at UCSB. He currently leads one of the CNS’s research initiatives; this explores the history of nanotechnology and its place in the broader context of the technological enthusiasm and industrial policy in the late 20th century. In 2013, Princeton University Press published his 4th book; titled The Visioneers: How an Elite Group of Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future, it explores the work of people who used their expertise as scientists, engineers, and popularizers to promote visions of a more expansive technological future. McCray has received numerous awards and fellowships including grants from the National Science Foundation, a Collaborative Research Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies (2010), and election as a Fellow to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2011).

Institutional location

Oral history number 0693
Physical container
  • Shelfmark QD22.S44636 A5 2011

Related Items

Interviewee biographical information

  • December 16, 1945
  • Chicago, Illinois, United States
  • November 16, 2021


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1966 University of Chicago BS Biochemistry
1970 University of Pittsburgh PhD Crystallography/Biochemistry

Professional Experience

Columbia University

  • 1970 to 1972 Research Associate with Cyrus Leginthal

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

  • 1972 to 1977 Postdoctoral Fellow with Alexander Rich

State University of New York at Albany

  • 1977 to 1983 Assistant professor, Biology Department
  • 1983 to 1988 Associate professor (tenured), Biology Department

New York University

  • 1988 to 2014 Professor, Department of Chemistry
  • 2001 to 2014 Margaret and Herman Sokol Professor of Chemistry


Year(s) Award
1963 to 1966 Illinois State Scholar
1967 to 1970 NIH Predoctoral Trainee
1970 NATO Advanced Study Fellow
1972 to 1973 Damon Runyon Fellow
1973 to 1976 NIH Postdoctoral Fellow
1974 Sidhu Award, for the demonstration of RNA double helices in single crystals
1978 to 1981 Basil O'Connor Fellow
1982 to 1987 NIH Research Career Development Award
1993 Popular Science Magazine Science and Technology Award, for the construction of a DNA cube
1995 Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology, The Foresight Institute, for founding DNA nanotechnology
1997 Discover Magazine Emerging Technology Award, for DNA tinkertoys
1998 Honorary Distinguished Professor, Univ. Peruana Cayetano Heredia
1998 Elected American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Fellow
1999 Margaret and Herman Sokol Faculty Award in the Sciences, for excellence in research in the Faculty of Arts and Science at New York University
1999 to 2003 Charter Member, BBCA NIH Study Section
2003 Outstanding Mentor, Siemens Westinghouse Competition
2004 Tulip Award, DNA-Based Computation Community
2005 Nanotech Briefs Nano50 Innovator Award for DNA nanotechnology
2005 World Technology Network Award, for biotechnology
2005 Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry
2005 NIH MERIT Award
2006 Festschrift Volume, Nanotechnology: Science and Computation, (J. Chen, N. Jonoska, G. Rozenberg, eds. ), Berlin: Springer-Verlag
2008 Nichols Medal, New York American Chemical Society, for structural DNA nanotechnology
2009 Frontiers of Science Award, Society of Cosmetic Chemists
2010 Alexander Rich Medal, MIT
2010 Kavli Prize in Nanoscience, Norwegian Academy of Sciences
2010 Elected Foreign Member, Norwegian Acad. Science & Letters
2012 Guggenheim Fellowship
2012 Chinese Academy of Sciences Albert Einstein Professorship Award
2012 Distinguished Alumnus Award, University of Pittsburgh
2013 Thomson Reuters Citation Laureate
2014 Elected Fellow of the American Crystallographic Association
2014 Jagadish Chandra Bose Triennial Gold Medal, Bose Institute

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The published version of the transcript may diverge from the interview audio due to edits to the transcript made by staff of the Center for Oral History, often at the request of the interviewee, during the transcript review process.

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