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Longtime UW Engineering Professor Franco Cerrina dies at age 62

An entrepreneur and pioneer in applied physics, University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Emeritus Franco Cerrina was found dead July 12 in his laboratory on the Boston University campus. Cerrina, who retired from the UW-Madison Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering January 2010, was professor and chair of the Boston University Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Cerrina first joined UW-Madison as a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Chemistry. He held various scientific roles until accepting a position in 1984 as an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. Cerrina was promoted to full professor in 1990; he was McFarland-Bascom Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering from 2001 to 2005 and Lynn H. Matthias Professor in Engineering from 2005 to 2008. He directed the UW-Madison Center for X-Ray Lithography from 1989 to 1998 and directed the Center for NanoTechnology from 1998 to 2010.

As a researcher, Cerrina applied physical sciences and engineering to manufacturing and biological challenges, focusing most recently on nanotechnology and biotechnology. Cerrina pushed the limits of photolithography for nanoscale applications ranging from fabricating devices on computer chips to DNA synthesis for biological research, drug and vaccine development, and genetic engineering. In particular, he applied semiconductor fabrication techniques to biological problems'a pursuit that yielded the maskless array synthesizer commercialized by NimbleGen Systems Inc., his first spin-off company.

Through the Center for NanoTechnology, he was developing new patterning techniques for device fabrication by merging standard lithography and molecular-level, scale-up methods. Also affiliated with the UW-Madison Center for Biotechnology, Cerrina worked closely with the semiconductor industry and federal government on developing fabrication methods that will yield advanced processors and memory chips.

To commercialize products related to his research, Cerrina co-founded five companies:

  • NimbleGen Systems, which manufactures DNA microarrays and provides genomic services. Hoffman-La Roche Pharmaceutical purchased it in 2007.
  • Genetic Assemblies Inc., founded to market custom double-stranded DNA sequences (genes). The company merged with Codon Devices Inc. in 2006.
  • Codon Devices Inc., which focuses on DNA synthesis and synthetic biology.
  • Biolitho Inc., which develops innovative engineering solutions to biological and genetic problems.
  • Gen9 Inc., which focuses on DNA synthesis and synthetic biology.

Cerrina, who earned his PhD in solid-state physics in 1974 from the University of Rome, has advised more than 45 graduate students at UW-Madison. He holds 16 patents and has published more than 300 papers and conference proceedings. He is a fellow of IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), of the Society of Photo-Imaging Engineers, of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, of the American Physical Society, and of the Optical Society of America.

Former UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley was a colleague and close personal friend of Cerrina's. "This is an absolutely tragic loss for all who knew Franco," says Wiley. "He made a profound mark on the University of Wisconsin. Franco was an international leader and pioneer in research that bridges the worlds of engineering, physics and biology. His loss will be deeply felt across the UW-Madison campus community."

Renee Meiller
7/12/2010