Tufts University

Lord Alec Nigel Broers

Nanotechnology pioneer

[ Biography | Honorary Degree ]

Commencement 2007

Lord Alec Nigel Broers is a trailblazing researcher who believes that technology is the key to transforming our lives, but only if society is willing to support and promote science and engineering. "Technology is the great leveler," he once said. "It is allowing more and more people to enjoy what was once only for the wealthy Technology can solve our problems, but only if the public engages in it."

In a career that has spanned both academia and the private sector, Lord Broers served as vice chancellor (the principal academic and administrative officer) of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom from 1996 until 2003. He also worked in the research and development laboratories of IBM in the United States for 19 years. He is a member of the House of Lords and chairman of its Science and Technology Select Committee. He is the immediate past president of the Royal Academy of Engineering and has won numerous awards and prizes, including the American Institute of Physics Prize for Industrial Application of Physics and the Prince Phillip Medal of the Royal Academy of Engineering. He was knighted in 1998.

The first person to use the scanning electron microscope for the fabrication of micro-miniature structures, he is considered a pioneer in the field of nanotechnology, the understanding and control of matter at a scale so minute as to be astonishing. Nanotechnology applies to matter with dimensions of roughly one to 100 nanometers. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, making a sheet of paper about 100,000 nanometers thick.

Early on, Lord Broers might have had an entirely different career. He was born in 1938 in Calcutta and educated in Australia. He received an undergraduate degree in physics and electronics at Melbourne University, but as a semi-professional singer who started a business making and selling high-fidelity equipment, he earned a choral scholarship to Cambridge University.

But his passion was electronics, and he earned a second bachelor's degree at Cambridge while singing in chorales for up to 20 hours a week. He earned his Ph.D. at Cambridge in 1965, and then went to IBM, where he worked on building microscopes and equipment for the fabrication of miniature components. In 1977, he was named an IBM Fellow, the company's highest honor for an employee in technology.

He returned to Cambridge in 1984 as a professor of electrical engineering and established a nanofabrication laboratory. He did research on the use of electrons, X-rays, and ultraviolet light in microscopy as well as on microelectronic components. In 1992, he became chair of the engineering department, and in 1996, he was appointed vice chancellor of the university, the first engineer to hold that post.

As an educator, Lord Broers has long believed that students need a balanced life, and he has been an advocate of promoting women in science and engineering. "Let engineers and scientists learn their Shakespeare and play the violin," he said, "and arts graduates should be ashamed, rather than proud, to be ignorant of technology. And we still have much to do on gender balance."

While serving as vice chancellor, Lord Broers and Tufts President Lawrence S. Bacow, then chancellor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, launched the Cambridge-MIT Institute to explore how academics, industrialists, and educators might work together to stimulate competitiveness, productivity, and entrepreneurship.

In 2005, Lord Broers was invited to give the Reith Lectures, a program of annual radio lectures sponsored by the BBC. In a series of five lectures titled "The Triumph of Technology," he said, "The process of improving existing capabilities and adapting them to new applications relies on something that we do not need to teach, something that is inherent in the way the best technologists operate. Creative engineers are, by nature, problem solvers, always seeking ways to employ advances in technology in new and better ways. It is an extraordinarily exciting activity."

Among his other activities, Lord Broers is involved with the Vodafone Group Foundation whose projects include providing wind-up and solar-powered radios to people in Africa who otherwise would have no access to communication.

The university will award him an honorary Doctor of Science degree.

This story originally ran on May 20, 2007.