Big Opportunities for Nanotechnology Researchers

You may not have heard of nanotechnology as an academic major. But the study of tiny things can lead to big opportunities.

Nanotechnologists are the scientists who work with atoms and molecules. Technical advances mean their job prospects are growing.

In the United States, a subcommittee on nanoscale science, engineering and technology predicts that by 2015, the world will need more than two million workers to support nanotechnology projects.

"I do believe there is potential to change the world we live in," says Andy Gilliland. He works with the National Institute for Nanotechnology.

So what is nanotechnology? Some people call it the science of making things small. In a television commercial, one company brags nanotechnology can make a cellphone so small an ant could use it.

A nano is a measurement. For example, one nanometer is billions of times smaller than one meter (3.2 feet). That's much tinier than the smallest marking on a ruler.

Gilliland says nanotechnology is studying the behavior of atoms and molecules. Since atoms and molecules are in everything, nanotechnology affects everything from medical treatments to car parts and longer-lasting tennis balls.

"We're able to use the pure science of how molecules interact with each other for practical uses. It's made possible by the fact we have new machines that allow us to see at a very small scale," Gilliland says.

So what has nanotechnology done for us lately?

Cosmetics companies use it to make better skin care products like sunscreen. Electronics companies use nanotech to make smaller parts that use less power. Car makers can use less metal. Medical researchers are looking for ways to inject insulin without needles.

"We are now able to work at a smaller level than ever before," says Cate Alexander of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) in Virginia. "Are there ways to build more efficiently? Can we manufacture products the way nature does with little waste and no pollution?

"The NNI exists because there is a belief nanotechnology can improve quality of life for human beings. Those are the real results," Alexander says.

But critics say nanotechnology has a dark side. They see a future of tiny spy devices and armies of miniature machines overrunning the Earth. North America's nanotech leaders are working with ethics specialists to study how nanotechnology will affect people and the environment.

"Every technology can be used towards ill purposes. We need to be aware of that," Alexander says.

Gilliland adds that nanotechnology offers more benefits than risks.

"Any of those concerns are nothing more than science fiction," Gilliland says. "The odds are [the results] will tend to be on the benign rather than the hazardous side. There is an education job to persuade people this is a huge field with potential for growth in the future."

The nanotech world is multiplying faster than Borg invaders on the Enterprise.

"There has been a huge increase in investment in nanotechnology over the past several years," Gilliland says.

"Nanoscience has been growing significantly," Alexander says. "One U.S. researcher notes 10 years ago he was the only researcher in his department working on a nanoscale. Now there is about a dozen.

"There are clusters of research areas in the [United States]. All of them are forming in areas where there is a great deal of university research going on. These areas are attracting industry."

In the U.S., most of the work is in Albany, New York and Silicon Valley, California, which is already famous for computers.

Education is the key to landing work in the nanotechnology world. Universities all over North America have started nanotechnology degree programs in the past few years.

Most of the people running nanotechnology equipment have master's degrees and PhDs. Gilliland says a bachelor's degree will open the door to a lab job, but people aiming for research need more training.

However, there are opportunities for other work in nano-fields. There is potential for economists, teachers, communicators, ethics experts and more.

Doug Perovic chairs a nanotechnology program. He says most bachelor's degree graduates pursue higher education. But the degree gives them tools to contribute to employers.

Terry Pack is program coordinator for the professional master's program in natural sciences at Rice University in Houston. That program includes a degree in nanoscale physics. It teaches students about science, business, ethics and communication.

Pack says that opens another door to future work outside research labs.

"In addition to industry, this type of degree prepares people for positions in government. It's important [that] people making the policies understand the science and its effects," she says.

Pack says employers are noticing the new level of education.

"We are working with companies right now preparing them to hire our graduates. They seem very receptive to someone who has knowledge of science and business."

Not everyone has access to big-city universities, but Gilliland says students can still get the right training. He suggests they focus on life sciences, engineering, medicine, physics and chemistry.