He has had a long and successful career as a researcher but Jean-Pierre Leburton can still remember the excitement he felt that summer back in 1965 when physics first cast its spell over him. A native of Belgium, Leburton was about a year away from his high school graduation and unsure of his future plans when his father surprised him with a gift.
"My parents knew that I was strong in mathematics so one day my father came back with two big books, encyclopedias really, contemporary science books that were very well done," Leburton said. "I opened them and it came at just the right time. From that time on I knew I wanted to do physics."
Physics, in his case applied physics, is what Leburton is doing as one of the top researchers in the country investigating issues surrounding semiconductor physics and technology. Leburton is the Gregory E. Stillman Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Illinois and a full-time faculty member in the Computational Electronics group at the Beckman Institute. His research has covered a variety of topics over the years, from quantum wires and semiconductor devices, to bio-nanotechnology and spintronics in nanostructures.
Leburton said he enjoys teaching and other facets of being a professor and researcher, but for him the highs come from scientific discovery.
"All of them are very interesting but of course for any researcher it is discovery, to be able to actually have an impact in the field," Leburton said. "This is a great place to do that because the interaction between faculty and students is one of the best I've ever experienced."
Spending more than two decades as a professor at Illinois wasnt necessarily what Leburton planned after earning his Ph.D. at the University of Liege in Belgium. He did want to do research in America and, after working two years for Siemens in Germany, came to Illinois in 1981with plans to stay for only a short time.
"I always wanted to come to the U.S. For a European researcher thats the dream, especially at that time, to do some kind of postdoc or visiting position here," Leburton said. "I didnt have the intention to stay. I came here for one year, then two years, and then I decided to stay. This is one of the greatest places in the U.S. to do research."
Leburton could have easily followed another path. His father, Edmond Leburton, was Prime Minister of Belgium and the son still has an interest in politics.
"I still follow politics, especially in Belgium, and of course I follow politics here," he said. "I always followed him in his career but I think being a scientist was much more fruitful for me."
Leburton said the research world is not quite as rough and tumble as the realm of European politics.
"Having a father who was as famous as mine, at some point you have a lot of friends around you and you also have a lot of enemies," Leburton said with a laugh. "Unfortunately the enemies stay and the friends sometimes leave." Fortunately, Leburton chose a career in science.
"My father was very open-minded and he always told me do whatever you want," Leburton said. "In high school I was very curious about nature and so he always told me first get a degree, and then you can choose what you want to do." Leburton joined the faculty at the University of Illinois in 1981, to work with Karl Hess, and was an original Beckman faculty member, coming to the Institute in 1989 as part of Hess group. Leburton says his research is "at the borderline between applied physics and electrical engineering" and mostly involves semiconductor physics for material structures of low dimension and nanoscale devices.
Twenty years ago his research focused on quantum wires because, he said, "I was interested in what would happen if you squeeze the electron motion in semiconductor devices like field-effect transistors in a second dimension.
"Then I started investigating complete electronic confinement in three dimensions, which one calls quantum dots. This system has atomistic properties because electrons as elementary charges at a very small scale, the nanoscale, behave as a full quantum system, like atoms."
More recently, Leburtons research interests have diversified from semiconductor physics to carbon nanotubes to biological systems. He is a key member of a project at Beckman funded by the Revolutionary Genome Sequencing Technologies program to develop a synthetic nanopore for low-cost and reliable sequencing of DNA.
In July, an effort led by Leburton received a tremendous amount of national and international attention for developing a new semiconductor nanopore-membrane with the same functionality but better performances than biological ion channels. Leburton, his post-doctoral research associate, and graduate student anticipated that a solid state semiconductor membrane with thin layers of doped silicon would show the potential for better electrical performance than biological membranes due to improved ion flow control and electrical tunability.
Leburton said that advances in semiconductor technology have enabled the fabrication of nanometer scale layers with arbitrary n- or p- doping levels, allowing biological molecule separation and, potentially, future single molecule detection and sequencing applications.
"I thought the idea of introducing semiconductor nanotechnology into biology is actually a neat one," Leburton said. "In the past what we have done is to study homogenous semiconductor membranes but suddenly the idea came: What if instead of using a uniform semiconductor membrane with a nanopore, we actually tailor it and process it in such a way that we make a semiconductor p-n junction? What would the effect be on the flow of ions through the nanopore?
"Talking with (post-doc) Maria Gracheva about it I saw immediately that this was a great idea because nobody had thought about it before. All of the membranes that have been considered with synthetic materials are actually dielectric, i.e. insulators, and consequently, are electrically passive. So, our idea was to make them active, electrically active."
The announcement was reported in engineering, physics, and nanotechnology magazines and journals worldwide.
"I have gotten a lot of feedback from the media," Leburton said. "In research things happen in such a way that sometimes you put a lot of effort into a particular, sometimes difficult, research problem and the scientific community doesnt respond. And then at other times you think you are working on some marginal issue and suddenly, oh, you have all this resonance within the community. Its very difficult to predict. Ive experienced this kind situation many times from the beginning of my career."
What Leburton does know is that he made the right choice to be a professor and researcher at Beckman and Illinois.
"Certainly one of the major factors why Im enjoying my life here is because of this place," Leburton said. "It allows me to, as they say in French, accomplish myself, to accomplish a lot, which would have been more difficult to do in Europe if I had stayed there."
Leburton has had many citations to his papers over the years and many academic honors and awards but his greatest satisfaction still comes from doing what first sparked his imagination as a teenager in Belgium.
"I think the best reward that I can get is to be able to do my work at the University of Illinois," he said.