Check Out This One Weird Trick for Winning a Lemelson Foundation Award

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Mary Belcher must be the natural world's chief admirer. The materials chemist and MIT professor has built a career studying natural processes and harnessing them for her inventions. The work has earned her acclaim from her colleagues and, most recently, the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, sponsored by the Lemelson Foundation.

The prize is given annually to an inventor who is far enough along in their career to have some important innovations under their belt, but not so far that they can’t make productive use of the prize and its accompanying prestige boost (see Lemelson Foundation: Grants for Science Education).

Belcher fits those criteria quite well. She says her interest in the natural world began at a young age. As an undergraduate at the University of California at Santa Barbara, her thinking on the topic matured further as she worked in physics, molecular biology, and chemistry laboratories.

"As I would go along I would put all those ideas together, was thinking about the origin of life and thinking about molecules and how molecules came together to form more complex structures, how more complex structures self-assemble to form organisms and, basically, us," Belcher said in a video produced by Lemelson-MIT on her award. "But if you just walk around and you look at what’s in your environment, you look at the beautiful structure of trees and the beautiful structures of leaves and how they evolved the ability to collect the sunlight."

Belcher’s thinking has turned into a slew of inventions that tap into nature's engineering prowess. By modifying the genetic makeup of a virus, she invented a process that allows her to turn methane gas into a compound that is useful for fuel and products like plastic. Another technology led her to launch a company, Cambrios Technologies, that uses biologically-based methods to create electronic materials. A coating material produced by Cambrios is used in applications like touch screens on tablet computers and laptops.

But perhaps her most celebrated invention is the biologically-based battery. Using genetically engineered viruses, Belcher has built battery electrodes that can power a small light or laser pointer. She hopes to scale up the technology and experiment with the technology's power to produce batteries that bend.

"The future things that we’re looking at are trying to make batteries that are flexible and conformable, so they could be a small airplane wing or they could be actually a car door, the structure," she said. "The biology allows you to do that because the biology is soft and flexible."

Belcher's successful track record helped put her on the map for the Lemelson Foundation, but her work with young students surely sealed the deal. The foundation is looking for someone who can do it all — a scientist with a record deserving of celebration but who also plays a role in educating the next generation of inventors.

Belcher has a record of mentoring students, and a portion of her $500,000 award will be invested in outreach programs to encourage young people to get involved in science. As nominations for the 2014 Lemelson-MIT Award start to roll in, it's worth remembering that judges are looking for someone who excels both in and out of the laboratory. (Read Lemelson STEM program officer, Alexander Nicholas' IP profile).