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Ryan Fellows Pursue Scientific Breakthroughs

The Ryan Family invests in graduate students who use nanotechnology to benefit society by solving complex problems.

Ryan Lab
During her time as a Ryan Fellow, Paige Hall ’20 MMS, right, mentored IIN Research Experience for Undergraduates participant Salome Ngatia.Image: Matthew Gilson

Winter 2023

Northwestern’s Ryan Fellows are changing the world, leading innovations in everything from medicine to manufacturing to materials science. Now in its 15th year, the Ryan Graduate Fellowship program comprises more than 200 fellows and spans the globe, bound only by science’s smallest unit of measurement.  

Specifically, the program supports graduate students dedicated to the exploration of fundamental nanoscale science — and turning that knowledge into practical applications that benefit society — thanks to a generous gift from the Patrick G. ’59, ’09 H and Shirley W. Ryan ’61, ’19 H Family in 2007.  

“This program invests in people rather than projects, and because of that, we get to see so many breakthroughs along the way,” says Chad Mirkin, director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology (IIN), which manages the Ryan Fellows program. 

“Ryan Fellows have invented tools that changed the practice of medicine and changed how we study and treat disease,” says Mirkin, who also is the George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “They’ve contributed to advances in manufacturing and the development of the world’s highest-throughput 3D printer. They have discovered ways of making highly miniaturized electronics that are used for all sorts of purposes, including computing. And they have transformed how we discover new materials by using artificial intelligence and big data.”  

Since the program’s inception, 10 departments across Northwestern have funded 218 fellows. Approximately 50% of Ryan Fellows have gone on to careers in academia; 44% are in industry; 4% are employed at other institutions, such as governmental agencies, national laboratories, nonprofit organizations and hospitals; and 2% are continuing their education.  

The flexibility of the program’s research opportunities is one reason for its ongoing success, according to Vinayak Dravid, the Abraham Harris Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering. This enables students “to go to places and explore topics that might have been impossible otherwise,” says Dravid, who also is founding director of the Northwestern University Atomic and Nanoscale Characterization Center. 

Additionally, the program promotes team building between the fellows as well as those they collaborate with outside of Northwestern. “The Ryan Fellowship allows students to interact with domestic and international partners and helps launch synergistic programs revolving around nano,” Dravid continues. For example, he says, “We’ve launched an Indo-U.S. program with India, Singapore and Israel to create a global network.” 

Mirkin credits the Ryan Family for their visionary generosity in creating a program that would “move the needle at Northwestern in the here and now,” he says. “It’s also something that’s going to pay enormous dividends down the road because it’s an investment in incredible people all over the world.” 

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