Who Needs a Nano Scientist?

by | Sep 20, 2010

As Professor Geoffrey Ozin from the University of Toronto reminisces on helping to develop a nanoscience degree program, he ponders on our need for nanoscientists.

Welcome to one of our guest columns, where active researchers can share their views on topics relevant to materials science. As Professor Geoffrey Ozin from the University of Toronto reminisces on helping to develop a nanoscience degree program, he ponders on our need for nanoscientists.

In the year 2000, the University of Toronto launched the world’s first undergraduate degree program in nanoscience, an initiative spearheaded by Nanoengineering as a specialization in the Engineering Science program (Nature 2000, 408, 623).

This multidisciplinary degree program is taught by faculty from the materials science, physics, chemistry, chemical engineering, and mechanical and industrial engineering departments, and the institute for biomaterials and biomedical engineering. The emphasis of the first two years is on a solid grounding in mathematics, chemistry and physics and in the final two years on allowing students to tailor their program of lectures, laboratories and final year thesis research by drawing from any of the aforementioned subjects to allow them to satisfy their individual interests and aspirations in nanotechnology.

I offered courses in materials chemistry and nanochemistry as part of this nanoengineering degree program and was also involved in delivering nanoscience lectures to students who were potentially interested in pursuing the nanoscience degree. I recall students asking me why they should train for a career in nanoscience when the field might not survive. Was this not a huge risk to take? I answered with conviction that the field certainly was going to survive, and that a student who was considering not being involved was taking a bigger risk than a student who was eager for a slice of the “nanopie.”

Fast forward a decade, and I can’t help but question whether I was justified in my unwavering promotion of nanoengineering science and belief in it as a field with a rosy future which, due to strong government and industrial ties would lead to great career prospects for any young scientist who chose to apprentice in it. Although we have had our great successes, the field has perhaps not reached the full potential I envisioned, and I’m compelled to ask: who needs a nanoscientist?

One of the main arguments used back in the good old days for encouraging students to specialize in nanoscience was its interdisciplinary nature; its promise to provide an education that criss-crosses the borders of the traditional scientific disciplines to gain as broad and deep an appreciation of the subject as possible. This is a lot to ask of a student, but the core nanoscience principle is that with the right role models and the right mix of factual, conceptual and analytical thinking, students can transcend the traditional model of a scientist who is an expert in one subject area at the expense of the others, and instead manage to have a good understanding of all, or, if that is not realistic, at least many areas of science.

Indeed maybe one of the greatest contributions of nanoscience is its success at encouraging bands of scientific specialists from disparate disciplines, to work together as integrated and harmonious units on big problems that require more than a single speciality for their solution. Together we are strong!

This new found interdisciplinary approach to solving research problems in information technology, biotechnology and nanotechnology is something of a recent development for the majority of university researchers who traditionally have felt more comfortable working alone or only with their closest coworkers in the speciality in which they feel scientifically secure and strong. To best take advantage of the nanoscience approach to research, one must be willing to expose their weaknesses in a multidisciplinary team environment, and this is not every scientist’s cup of tea! However, those with the confidence to do so usually benefit enormously from the experience of working in a stimulating multi-expert environment with the free-flow of ideas directed to solving a problem of mutual interest that is far beyond the capability of a single expert, or even a single discipline. Of course, having teams of scientists from different disciplines collaborating on the same problem is nothing new: it took scientists from many disciplines working together to put a man on the moon. What is new, however, is that we now have a new breed of scientist who, when faced with such a problem, aims to understand not just his small section of it, and those to which it is directly related, but also to understand the nature of the entire problem itself. For this reason, the nanoscientist is ideally positioned as a central player in these interdisciplinary problems. Accordingly, nanoscience degree programs need to evolve from the “nano for the sake of nano” philosophy to one where nano is a means to an end within a well-defined future technology. This is what students and employers recognize.

This leads me towards the answer to my question. We are now beginning to understand some of the great issues facing our species. We’re running out of energy. We’re poisoning our atmosphere, our water, and ourselves. We’re slowly cooking our planet. Many of the most important recent advances in tackling these problems “particularly in the alternative energy sector, which promises to be the centrepiece of our ultimate solution” have come from scientists whose research draws from the broad range of knowledge that an education in nanoscience aims to provide. Indeed, I believe that some of the greatest progress that we are seeing in tackling some of the greatest issues we have ever faced is coming from nanoscientists.

My answer then, to the question: “who needs a nanoscientist?” is that we ALL do!

Do you think nanoscientists can tackle the world’s problems? Let us know in the comments below!

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