Federal authorities sent shock waves through the halls of academia Tuesday when they arrested Charles M. Lieber, chair of Harvard University’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department, on a charge of lying to investigators about his ties to a Chinese university in Wuhan.
Robert Langer, a chemical engineer at MIT and a prolific inventor and entrepreneur, said Tuesday that he knows Lieber and was startled by the news.
"I've always thought of him as an outstanding scientist," Langer said in an email. "I've had some of his former students in my lab a number of years ago, and we collaborated a bit a number of years ago."
Lieber, 60, helped pioneer the placement of nanowires that could go into a tissue-engineered heart and sense how the organ is functioning, Langer said. Since the 1960s, scientists have struggled to develop working artificial hearts -- first mechanical ones and more recently a living organ manufactured for transplantation in people with severe cardiac disease.
The Philadelphia native received his doctorate from Stanford and took a job as an assistant professor at Columbia University in 1987 before coming to Harvard four years later, according to his biography on Harvard’s website.
“At Harvard, Lieber has pioneered the synthesis of a broad range of nanoscale materials, the characterization of the unique physical properties of these materials and the development of methods of hierarchical assembly of nanoscale wires, together with the demonstration of applications of these materials in nanoelectronics, nanocomputing, biological and chemical sensing, neurobiology and nanophotonics,” the bio says.
Lieber’s an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as well as a Fellow of the Materials Research Society and American Chemical Society, according to the Harvard biography.
He’s also an "Honorary Fellow of the Chinese Chemical Society, and member of the American Physical Society, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, International Society for Optical Engineering and American Association for the Advancement of Science,' the bio states.
The prominent academic has business savvy too, starting two companies.
“In his spare time, Lieber has been active in commercializing nanotechnology, and has founded the nanotechnology companies: Nanosys, Inc. in 2001 and the new nanosensor company Vista Therapeutics in 2007,” the bio says.
Nanosys announced in 2009 that it had signed agreements with Harvard to “facilitate out-licensing in two areas: nanowire-based biosensors and nanowire-based non-volatile memories," and that the intellectual property "is available for out-licensing to any interested third parties.”
Nanosys said at the time in a statement that the “technologies being made available originate from” Lieber’s lab and "other nanotech researchers at Nanosys and other universities associated with Nanosys.”
That announcement was welcomed at the time by Isaac T. Kohlberg, senior associate provost and chief technology development officer at Harvard.
“We’re delighted to be working in concert with Nanosys, a recognized leader in the nanowire space, to identify companies interested in acquiring rights to our innovative nanowire technologies for next-generation biosensors and non-volatile memory," Kohlberg said in the company’s 2009 statement.
And since 2008, Lieber has served as principal investigator at the Lieber Research Group at Harvard, according to prosecutors.
The group “is focused broadly on nanoscience and nanotechnology, and the interface of these areas with biology and medicine,” its website says. “Central to our vision for the future is the capability to synthesize and illuminate unique physical properties of novel nanoscale materials, and to exploit these structures and other concepts from nanoscience to design powerful new tools for investigating fundamental questions in biology as well as developing novel electronic therapeutics for treatment of human disease.”
Lieber even thinks big when he’s off the clock, setting a state record in 2014 when he grew a 1,870 pound pumpkin, ABC News reported at the time.
"My son was interested in growing pumpkins and my husband got a book from his dad about growing giant pumpkins and then they started growing them,” Lieber’s wife, Jennifer Lieber, told ABC then. “I think the first one he took to a competition, in 2007, weighed about 1,100 pounds.”
Martin Finucane of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.