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I get many emails and phone calls, especially from students,
asking what is nanotechnology? Students want to know what to
study, how to take advantage of opportunities and what is the best
path to follow. These are all difficult questions to answer
and, in fact, there is no one answer that is satisfactory for
What is nanotechnology? My best answer is summarized
in the simple diagram below. Basically, nanotechnology is a proposed way
to take advantage of the unique properties of matter that begins
to emerge at the nanometer length scale. If you could somehow
categorize all efforts in nanotechnology throughout the world,
I believe you could do so reasonably well by using the classification
scheme shown below. I believe, by and large, that nanotechnology
can be understood as a world-wide effort i) to use molecules
in novel ways, ii) to exploit biological paradigms, developed
during the course of evolution, in novel ways, and iii) to synthesize
new materials at the nanoscale.
THE NANOTECHNOLOGY TRIAD
What is the metric for success?
I believe it is hard to define right now.
Ultimately, if products are not better, less expensive and easier
to manufacture, then the current excitement about nano will only result in
in new and interesting science discoveries.
What courses should you study?
I believe you must think in an interdisciplinary
way, which may not ibe the way you have been taught to think. As
an undergraduate, few universities are confident enough to allow
you flexibility to study, in a systematic way, material from different
disciplines. This is really the background you need to be successful in
the nano world.
Traditional academic disciplines are deeply rooted and
academic traditions are very entrenched; these are obstacles that you
must overcome if you are to develop
a truly interdisciplinary study plan.
But, that’s OK. Initially, it’s
important to become good at ONE thing. So study physics, biology,
chemistry or whatever and become really proficient in it.
A half-hearted effort will not do. If you are not in the top
10% in your class, you probably don’t want to become involved
in the nano business anyway. If you do not have a firm understanding
in at least ONE discipline, you’ll probably get discouraged
because you can’t understand, at a fundamental level,
what everybody is excited about.
The second issue to stress is one of communication.
You have to be a good communicator (both speaking and writing) because you are often making
to individuals about ideas that are foreign to their formal
training. If you can’t (or don’t want to make) the
effort to explain what you are doing in a clear way, you will
also run into severe roadblocks as you try to position yourself
for a future in all things nano. If you do not practice being an effective
communicator, I think you will run into problems.