Here we are again, flying out of Vegas on yet another business trip--pausing to consider the contemporary axiom that "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas." Yet, somehow, we sensed this trip was different from the get-go.
Having just completed a six-month national nanotech study, we are instantly reminded of the emergent nanotech trendline, as we look over at the Generation Y student riding, no less in first class, listening to his iPod nano while he dials up CNN MarketWatch on his cellular phone.
Slowly, but steadily, our American research universities are partnering with public and private colleges to create a community of nanotech scholar practitioners drawn from a kaleidoscope of disciplines, ranging from engineering, manufacturing, and medical technologies to life sciences, health sciences, medicine, and nutrition.
Naturally, the usual suspects--read as Harvard, MIT, and Johns Hopkins--are already established major players in a collaboration called GEM4 (Global Enterprise for Micro Mechanics and Molecular Medicine). Beyond GEM4, however, there are other consortia of mission-complementary higher ed partners now applying atomic force microscopy, laser tweezers, and nanoscale staples to spur new discoveries in human genome experimentation--fighting diseases like botulism, malaria, sickle cell anemia, and pancreatic cancer.
Two-year colleges are also preparing for the coming wave of nanotechnology: Middlesex Community College (Mass.), community colleges of the State University of New York system, as well as those in Maryland, Minnesota, and South Dakota, for instance. By way of further example, the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges is now partnered with the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, the Pennsylvania College of Technology, and Pennsylvania State University. Also, the University of Massachusetts has teamed with Northeastern University in Boston and the University of New Hampshire to form the NSF Center for High Rate Nanomanufacturing.
One of the most promising collaborative nanotech experiments is happening at the National Textile Center--a research university consortium made up of the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth; Auburn University (Ala.); Clemson University (S.C.); Cornell University (N.Y.); Georgia Tech; North Carolina State; and the University of California, Davis.
At UMass, Dartmouth, new miracle fabrics warn and defend against chemical attacks in battlefield conditions, comprise soldiers' uniforms that can change color for camouflage, insulate U.S. troops in cold and hot weather, and even provide bioactive self-healing bandages with electro-spun fibers. Down the road, all-weather garments made with nanotech fibers will change temperature and colors to fit the weather and our moods, and may even provide self-medicating capacity for those whose health is at risk. UMass, Dartmouth Chancellor Jean MacCormack notes with pride the interdisciplinary spinoffs resulting from new nanotech-based products, and importantly, new start-up firms that have graduated (i.e., incubated) at the university's Fall River Campus. Working together in clean rooms, smart rooms, robotics and lean manufacturing laboratories, and wireless amphitheaters, UMass, Dartmouth nanotechnology faculty work side by side with graduate research fellows and undergraduate interns, bringing together a support network that spans the world of nanotech learning and earning.
What surprises so many nano-newcomers is the fact that it takes five to 10 bench-level lab workers to support every high-end Ph.D. principle investigator. This metric can vary substantially, depending on research sector, environmental conditions, and level of resource investment. Clearly, the pace and progress of nanotechnology development will accelerate as capital investment comes on line--driven by industry's insatiable appetite for timely and successful clinical testing.
Sensing strong simpatico with those who struggle to adapt, we offer this nanotaxonomy for the technologically challenged:
For the conceivable future, nano manufacturing, engineering, science, and technologies will likely be a hybrid, with both top-down and bottom-up techniques deployed at various stages of manufacture. Yet, unlike pasteurization, penicillin, and plasma television, nanotech is a wondrous blend of academic disciplines intensely interacting and producing groundbreaking scientific and technological results.
Traditional academicians may be shocked by the ubiquitous and disruptive nature of this nanosynthetic process. That said, we can now envision a very different future where engineers, scientists, physicians, oral health specialists, and epidemiologists become the "frequent flyer" conference presenters and panelists--producing extraordinary results and adding value to university research and development initiatives across the nation and around the world.
Consider, if you will, the nanotech jobs of the future:
Nanotech Manufacturing Process Technician: These are skilled production technicians who use top-down and bottom-up nano tools to develop and implement the manufacturing process for nanotechnology products.
Nanotech Biological Product Technician: Biotechnicians will focus on the biotech, pharmaceutical, and medical device industry, creating preventative health monitors and early intervention systems.
Nanotechnology Project Manager: These people will lead and manage nanotechnology industry projects, and will have an in-depth understanding of the procedures, equipment, and methodologies of nanotechnology.
Nano-Materials Process and Production Technician: These nanotechnicians will be involved with the preparation, production, and design of nano-particles and nano-precursors.
Nanotechnology Quality Manager: Nanotech knowledge workers will possess the skills required to perform quality control for nanotech industry projects.
Nanotechnology Safety Specialist: Trained in methods of hazard reduction for the new class of materials other nanotechnologists will generate, these professionals will combine hazardous materials/biowaste management and clean room design/management.
We now know that nanotech will be the DNA of scientific discovery and new product development in the new millennium. What's different about the nanotech megatrend is the unusual convergence of disciplines, scholars, and practitioners--all pushing the envelope and unified in purpose, mission, and vision.
Now, as the sun dips in the skies over the buttes around Vegas, we ponder the future implications of nanotechnology and scientific discovery. In so many ways, the nanotechnology horizon provides us with encouragement for economic revitalization, and for building a more diverse and sustainable economy. After all, places like Vegas no longer have a monopoly on gaming, adult entertainment, and world-class destination conference amenities.
So, as you throw a log on the fire and read through this issue of University Business, consider the flame retardant, miracle fiber of the pillow that props you up, and the halogen lamp which makes for easy reading--perhaps made possible by your regional nanotech university--taking you back to the future as American higher education demonstrates its ingenious knack for reinvention.
James Martin is a professor at Mount Ida College (Mass.). James E. Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance. Their book is Presidential Transition in Higher Education: Managing Leadership Change (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).