Seattle, WA. — Carlie Partridge reports that the University of Washington is launching the nation’s first doctoral-degree program in nanotechnology. Nanotechnology refers to the emerging fields of science and technology that operate on the scale of a nanometer – one billionth of a meter – a measurement 1,000 times narrower than a human hair.
The Ph.D. in nanotechnology is an “option program” incorporated into already existing Ph.D. programs in a variety of scientific disciplines. Participating students will earn simultaneous degrees in both nanotechnology and in one of nine other departments including computer science and engineering.
The program was instituted with the aid of a $2.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Integrative Graduate Research Training program. Offering America’s only graduate nanotechnology track, the program is expected to draw 20 to 40 students per year. Students may enroll immediately as the program expects approval by the UW Board of Regents.
As the heart of the program, the UW Center for Nanotechnology has been designed to establish closer working relationships between otherwise unrelated departments with nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology has evolved into a scientifically and socially critical academic field. Research into the workings of the nanoworld has offered scientists the ability to manipulate individual molecules and atoms. Advances in nanotechnology have forged the way for the building of machines, robots and materials on a molecular level.
Considering the enormous potential for advancements in nanotechnology, the need for such a program is overdue, according to Viola Vogel, director of the UW’s Center for Nanotechnology.
“Nanotechnology will be to the 21st century what microelectronics was to the past century,” Vogel said. “This field has implications for a wide range of disciplines, including chemistry, materials, bioengineering, medicine, communications and computer science, and it has the potential to totally change almost every aspect of our lives. There will be a great demand for people with proficiency in this field.”
Research in nanotechnology has already yielded valuable advances. In medicine, nanoscale processes have advanced approaches to trapping and releasing nutrients and drugs in patients and the possibility of nanoscale sensors for disease. In architecture, nanoscale devices can be incoporated into measurement and control assemblies; in molecular biology, nanoscale advances have aided single molecule mechanics by correlating the material properties of molecular assembly; nanoscale research in the material sciences could find new materials many times stronger and lighter than anything known.
“Novel materials with enhanced properties are already coming on the market,” Vogel said, citing ever smaller and faster computers and batteries.
The field of medicine stands on the precipice of great evolutions in both research and surgical procedure fueled by developments in nanotechnology. The nascent discipline offers scientists the tools “to learn from an engineering perspective how biological nanoscale systems work, and to mimic nature’s own design principles,” according to Vogel.
The end goal of the UW’s program in nanotechnology is to make students more interdisciplinary, Vogel said. “If they are interdisciplinary they can communicate better, which means they can recognize the importance of other experiments and incorporate them into their own work. That saves time and makes for good science.”