Some of the world’s ear­liest appli­ca­tions of mag­nets were for feng shui by ancient Chi­nese cul­tures, and in com­passes for nav­i­ga­tors sailing the globe. Today, next-​​generation mag­nets are being per­formed to advance new hybrid vehi­cles, wind tur­bines, and even the diag­nosis and treat­ment of cancer, said North­eastern Uni­ver­sity pro­fessor Vin­cent Harris.

Harris, the William Lin­coln Smith Chair Pro­fessor in Elec­trical and Com­puter Engi­neering, explored the magnet’s rich his­tory and promising future on Thursday at Northeastern’s 47th annual Robert D. Klein Uni­ver­sity Lec­ture. The annual honor, estab­lished in 1964 as the Uni­ver­sity Lec­ture­ship and renamed in 1979 for the late math­e­matics pro­fessor, is pre­sented to fac­ulty mem­bers who have made major con­tri­bu­tions in their field.

Harris is inter­na­tion­ally renowned as a leader in the field of microwave mate­rials and technologies.

One obser­va­tion made of mag­netism over the last 50 years, Harris said, is that the devel­op­ment of rare earth-​​based per­ma­nent mag­nets are making elec­tric motors smaller, more pow­erful and adapt­able to hybrid vehi­cles. Mean­while, he cited mag­netic fields present in hard disk drives make it pos­sible to store vast amounts of data in devices such as iPods and computers.

Mag­netism research is also offering a glimpse into the future of bat­tling cancer, Harris said. Mag­ne­tized nanopar­ti­cles con­tained in a fluid injected into the body may be able to track down, attach to and kill tumor cells while leaving healthy cells intact. One such example, employing the con­cept that high fever kills tumors, involves nanopar­ti­cles coated with recep­tors that would attach them­selves to tumor cells. Warm the nanopar­ti­cles, said Harris, and you might “burn” and kill the cancer cells.

This is a tremen­dous break­through, in that we can func­tion­alize the sur­face of these mag­netic nanopar­ti­cles, and they can actu­ally seek out and bind to cancer cells,” he said.

Humans, how­ever, aren’t the only ones taking advan­tage of mag­nets. Harris pointed to a 2010 study by German researchers that found migra­tory birds have mag­netic par­ti­cles in the cells in their upper beaks bound to their sen­sory system.

Harris founded and directs the Center for Microwave Mag­netic Mate­rials and Inte­grated Cir­cuits at North­eastern, where researchers are devel­oping next-​​generation microwave mate­rials and device solu­tions for radar and wire­less com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies for U.S. defense and com­mer­cial industries.

Harris said the Center, cre­ated in 2004, offers a unique stu­dent expe­ri­ence by exposing stu­dents to mate­rials sci­ence, physics and elec­trical engi­neering. The Center’s first group of 16 grad­u­ates has pub­lished 93 peer-​​reviewed journal arti­cles, which col­lec­tively have more than 300 cita­tions per year, he said.

I think the proudest accom­plish­ment we have is student-​​led research and stu­dent pro­duc­tivity,” Harris said.

View selected pub­li­ca­tions of Vin­cent Harris in IRis, Northeastern’s dig­ital archive.