The University of Washington is launching the nation’s first doctoral degree program in nanotechnology, an undertaking designed to prepare students as leaders in a world in which engineering the very small will soon become big business.
The program will put in place a Ph.D. nanotechnology track tied closely to other science disciplines. Nine departments will take part, and students will earn concurrent degrees in nanotechnology and in a discipline of science, engineering or medicine. The effort is being funded by a $2.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Integrative Graduate Education Research Training program.
As an “option program” established in conjunction with other already existing Ph.D. programs, the nanotechnology Ph.D. doesn’t require approval of the state Higher Education Coordinating Board. Students can enroll in the program almost immediately, pending final approval by UW regents.
The need for such programs is critical, according to Viola Vogel, director of the UW’s Center for Nanotechnology. Small is about to become very big.
“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.”
Nanotechnology deals with the building of new materials and extremely small machines by manipulating individual atoms or molecules, or by letting them self-assemble. Such devices are measured in the billionths of a meter – the width of about four atoms or 1,000 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair.
The potential for such technology is enormous. Imagine a computer chip that could store trillions of bits of information in an area the size of a pin’s head. Or biologically compatible devices that could attack disease and regulate health at the sub-cellular level. Or the ability to design and fabricate materials from the atomic level to optimize weight, strength and other desired characteristics.
“There are applications we have yet to even imagine,” Vogel said.
The groundwork for the new program has already been laid with the UW’s Center for Nanotechnology. Founded in 1997 with $2 million from a UW initiative designed to encourage interdisciplinary educational pursuits, the center has established close working relationships among otherwise separate departments using nanotechnology as a unifying theme.
As a result, the faculty and academic infrastructure to support the new doctorate already exist, Vogel said. The bulk of the NSF money, awarded in $500,000 increments over five years, will pay for student fellowships that will allow Ph.D. candidates to pursue in-depth nanotechnology research. Part of the grant will fund symposia and conferences to encourage collaboration, and an additional one-time $200,000 award will go toward purchasing additional equipment for the university’s NanoTech User Facility, where graduate and undergraduate students receive hands-on instruction in operating state-of-the-art equipment.
The end goal, according to Vogel, is to broaden students’ training and prepare them to seize the future. Nanotechnology is multi-disciplinary, delving into the corners of the atomic world where sciences overlap, often exploring uncharted ground, she said. Students need to become more interdisciplinary.
“The race just gets faster and faster,” 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.”
Participating departments include biochemistry, bioengineering, chemistry, chemical engineering, electrical engineering, materials science and engineering, molecular biotechnology, physics, and physiology and biophysics.