In less than two decades the batteries that power cell phones have gone from hefty window smashing bricks to tiny, almost invisible tabs.

Now, a UC Santa Barbara Alumna is taking batteries to their next evolution, where they will be even more tiny and built to fit any shape.

Angela Belcher, who at 46 has won some of the nation’s most prestigious research awards, is using viruses to build a smaller, more environmentally friendly and more powerful battery. She is a dual alumna of UC Santa Barbara, having received her bachelor of science in the College of Creative Studies in 1991 and a doctorate in chemistry in 1997.

She now leads the Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies (ICB) research group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Her work has focused on genetically modifying viruses so that their cells will attach to certain inorganic materials in such a way as to create electronic circuits. While it sounds simple, it is in fact a revolutionary marriage of basic biology and materials engineering. It led to international acclaim in an article she authored in Science in 2009 and a recent demonstration of the potential for new types of batteries for President Obama. Ultimately she and her team hope to develop a virus battery that can power an electric car, an idea that would have seemed whacky only a few years ago but now seems totally feasible.

It all dates back to Belcher’s time at UC Santa Barbara where she acknowledges the interdisciplinary nature of the College of Creative Studies allowed her to move easily from biology to engineering. Her research began as a doctoral student at UCSB studying how an abalone builds its shell.

That basic biological process inspired Belcher to seek ways that she could build batteries using natural processes—in this case viruses that can produce billions of cells very quickly and then be “panned” to separate those cells that will attach to nanowires of cobalt oxide and carbon.

Belcher continues the academic career she learned at UCSB. Besides leading the ICB effort at MIT, she is part of a separate team at MIT that is working on building a cancer probe that designed so that genetically engineered virus tubes would latch onto cancer tumors and produce telltale markers. Once that sensor is developed, the next logical step is to engineer viruses that could attack cancer cells by latching onto them.

The work has brought Belcher fame and the beginnings of a small fortune. The Economist magazine ran a long profile of her work in the May 7, 2014 issue. She has received the MacArthur “genius” award and was named by Time Magazine a “hero” for her work on fighting climate change. Even Rolling Stone called her one of the most important 100 people changing the world in 2009. She and her colleagues have spun off several successful biotechnology firms, including Siluria Technologies and Cambrios, a world leader in manufacturing silver nanowire for some of the world’s largest producers of computer technology.

In 2006 she received the UC Santa Barbara Alumni Association Distinguished Alumni Award. As she recently told Nature.of her experience in the College of Creative Studies at UCSB, “It was one of the best decisions I ever made. I could take risks, and it allowed me to put different topics together. I worked in plant molecular biology, physics and chemistry labs and did ecology research. Later, as a doctoral student, I worked with a physicist, a molecular biologist and an inorganic chemist. It was like a playground for multidisciplinary science. “

Today the playground includes curing cancer, solving global warming and finding how nature can really build a better world.

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