This is the first of 2 stories featuring Nanotechnology where we will explore how working small and thinking big can launch new careers. Learn more about the rapidly emerging field of Nanotechnology at VCU in this Science Matters video. Next, we will shadow two High School teachers, Nano Fellows at the MathScience Innovation Center, who are using Nanotechnology to engage and better prepare students for the 21st century workforce.
Nanoscience is a fairly young science which explores the behavior and properties of materials at the nanoscale. This means scientists study particles that are very, very tiny - 1 to 100 nanometers - that’s one billionth of a meter. And since we continue to look for smaller and faster technologies - Nanotechnology is definitely a wave of the future.
Every day we are surrounded by Nanotechnology in many areas of our daily lives - from energy production, medicine, building materials, consumer products, agriculture and food safety. Nanomaterials already keep us from getting sunburned, help make car parts stronger and are used to fight cancer. It’s this wide range of applications that gives Nanotechnology its enormous job growth potential. According to a recent survey by the National Science Foundation, by 2015 the need for technology professionals working in Nanotechnology will increase to 800,000 employers in the US and more than 2 million worldwide.
The field is being touted as one of the top new college majors with a future and the number of labs working with nanomaterials worldwide is growing dramatically. Virginia Commonwealth University offers one of the first Nanotechnology Ph.D. programs in Virginia and VCU's NanoCenter is one of the top 10 Nanotechnology facilities nationwide.
Dr. Everett Carpenter, Director of VCU’s NanoCenter explains that “currently the Nano initiative in the US is more of an applied approach. In addition to looking at what the propeties are or how they evolve as size changes, we are exploring how we can incorporate these small particles into an actual device or commercial application.”
And that is what’s happening at VCU today. New applications for energy are currently the focus of Nano research at VCU. Dr. Carpenter and his students are researching new materials such as Ferrofluids and a new non-rare earth permanent magnet. Ferrofluids have many applications in medicine (MRI contrast agents), environmental (cleans ups heavy metal toxins) and consumer products (electric motors). Dr. Carpenter’s team has recently received a grant to research and develop a new magnet that will not contain rare earth elements and can be used in any device that uses a motor. This provides efficient, cost effective energy options that have less of an environmental impact and can be sustained in the U.S. instead of overseas.
I met with April Hines and Daniel Hudgins, two graduate students in the VCU’s NanoCenter and asked them what made them choose Nanotechnology as a career path?
“I was always the kid who asked her Mom tons of why questions,” shares April. “I became interested in Chemistry at a young age because I wanted to know why something was the way it was - or what it was made of. I pursued an undergraduate degree in Chemistry as a result. When I entered graduate school at VCU and was exposed to Nanotechnology and all of its applications, the curious chemist in me was amazed by how something as simple as size could change the chemical and physcial properties so vastly. The field just seems limitless because of this.”
Dan explains that, “I was the kid who always took things apart to see what made them work. And hopefully, I was able to put things back together again.” With an undergraduate degree in Biology, Dan decided to pursue the field of Nanotechnology after working in Engineering for 2 1/2 years. Dan explained that his transition from Biology to Engineering to Nanotechnology happened very slowly and deliberately as his work experiences provided him with a practical background for understanding the theory. “I was drawn to Nanotechnology because of its practical applications and its ability to deliver results. You are constantly learning new things, encouraged to ask challenging questions and to change your mind based on your discoveries,” Dan shared.
Both April and Dan are attracted to the field because of its interdisciplinary nature. Nanotechnology is really a combination of many different fields. You can enter the field from many areas such as Chemistry, Physics, Genetics, Biology, Biomedical or Mechanical Engineering.
What skills are needed to get into the field? Dr. Carpenter, April and Dan describe some of the skills needed to pursue this field:
- Perseverance- that “I won’t quit” attitude
- Curiosity- the ability to learn new things and the desire to delve into new areas.
- Not being afraid to make mistakes
- Communication skills- the ability to synthesize and express complicated concepts in simple language and the ability to talk to others in diverse fields and understand their terminology and goals.
- Mechanical dexterity- experience handling a variety of complicated lab equipment
- Desire to innovate
- Desire to question what everyone else accepts as fact. To ask the “why” questions and challenge ideas.
If you are interested in finding out more about Nanotechnology as a college degree or a career path, check out these resources:
For an overview of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Nanotechnology Ph.D. program go to VCU’s NanoCenter.
Want to find which Colleges and Universities offer Nanotechnology Degree Programs? Go to The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE’s) website for more information on other Nanotechnology Degree Programs.
For a description of the Bureau of Labor’s Occupational Outlook see their Occupational Outlook Handbook.
Want to know more about the future of Nanotechnology careers? Go to Nanotechnology for Dummies.
Want to know more about products currently being made using Nanotechnology? Look at the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies Product Inventory.
Article by Debbie Mickle, Science Matters Project Manager