Ron Refenberger
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Research-What is Nanotechnology?

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 all students.

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.



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 presentations 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.