March 28, 2011

The CNSE Ecosystem: New Niches, Adaptation, And Population Growth

By: by Daniel White, CNSE Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs


The College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE) is often described as an evolving and growing ecosystem. This metaphor provides an appealing framework to understand the dynamic academic and technological developments occurring at the CNSE every day. Geographically, the CNSE ecosystem is located in Albany, New York and is built on the Albany NanoTech Complex which covers approximately 800,000 square feet of territory. In addition to the College, the Albany NanoTech Complex houses the most advanced infrastructure available in the world for the study and development of nanotechnology, nanoengineering, and nanobioscience. The biotic members of the CNSE ecosystem include corporate partners (including IBM, TEL, Applied Materials, ASML, and International SEMATECH among others) who employ approximately 2,600 R+D professionals as well as the faculty, staff, and most importantly students at the CNSE.

The term ecosystem implies interaction and association among the communities of individuals and their environment and this also reflects how the CNSE operates. To enhance and support interdisciplinary interaction, the College is uniquely organized into overlapping disciplinary constellations that include nanoengineering, nanoscience, nanobiology, and nanoeconomics. Faculty and students grouped into these constellations routinely cross the boundaries of traditional disciplines like biology, chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, and physics to tackle technological and commercial challenges developed around the theme of nanotechnology. Creating nano-based solutions to biological, engineering, environmental, health and technological problems is achieved most effectively when traditional disciplinary silos are knocked down and cross-disciplinary sharing is encouraged. Our students develop their knowledge in this milieu and come to expect and seek out expertise across disciplines to help solve problems.

The academic component of the CNSE ecosystem began with graduate education and in December 2004, the College conferred the world's first Ph.D. in Nanoscale Science. We currently have 129 Ph.D. students and 22 M.S. students working toward degrees in two tracks, Nanoscale Science and Nanoscale Engineering. These cross-disciplinary programs expose students to the foundations of biology, chemistry, math, and physics. They also allow students to explore, develop, and deepen their knowledge on cutting edge nanoscience research projects that utilize a panoply of advanced analytical and characterization tools (scanning electron microscopy, transmission electron microscopy, atomic force microscopy, and focused ion-beam systems among others), 200 and 300 mm wafer fabrication systems, and world-class nanobiology laboratories.

The success of our graduate programs coupled with the essential societal need to train young people for the advanced nanotechnology-enabled fields of the future propelled the College leadership to develop an undergraduate program that officially came into existence in June 2009. We currently have 31 undergraduate students in two comprehensive major tracks, Nanoscale Engineering and Nanoscale Science. These pioneering and rigorous majors are based on the premise that undergraduate students need a strong base in the fundamental sciences, the scientific method, and scientific experimentation. With hands-on training using industry standard instrumentation, our students take what they learn in the classroom and laboratory and apply it to capstone projects in their junior and senior years. Undergraduates are also exposed to the economic, environmental, ethical, medical, and societal implications of nanoscience-based materials and industries. Our students are prepared for graduate careers in nanoscience, physics, chemistry, and interdisciplinary fields such as material science and medicine among others.

Part of my role on the CNSE Student Affairs team is to help these bright and creative students leverage the intellectual and technological resources at the CNSE and on the Albany NanoTech Complex to develop the skills required for the 21st century innovation economy. From academic advisement to corporate outreach, we seek to place our students in first-class internships (on and off-site) and position them for high-tech career opportunities with our corporate partners, other global industrial leaders, and with top higher education programs.

As an evolving and growing ecosystem, CNSE is adapting to the rapid development of new niches, new technologies, and new societal needs. Two recent examples to illustrate this point were announced in February and March of this year. On February 15, 2011 the CNSE, SEMATECH, and ISMI announced the creation a trailblazing new NanoHealth and Safety Center (NSC). The mission of the NSC is to explore the occupational and environmental health and safety challenges arising from the manufacturing and development of nanoelectronics. The NSC gathers together experts in environmental health and safety, manufacturing, and public health to proactively research issues such as occupational exposure to nanoparticles and efficient usage of water and chemicals in the manufacturing process.

Just two weeks after the announcement of the NSC, the CNSE and SUNY Downstate Medical Center announced the world's first M.D. /PH.D. program designed to train physicians in nanoscale medicine. This groundbreaking curriculum will train a new "hybrid generation" of physician/scientists to utilize and invent new nanotechnology-based techniques to prevent, diagnose and treat disease. This initiative is being led by the CNSE's Assistant Vice President for NanoHealth Initiative, Dr. Sara Brenner, who is also a medical doctor. This program is an exciting development for me personally because I am a trained biological anthropologist with expertise in human anatomy, growth, and development. In true CNSE spirit, Dr. Brenner and I have collaborated across disciplines to develop a graduate course in Clinical Nanomedicine that draws on her medical and public health expertise and my research in anthropology, anatomy and physiology.

The College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering is truly an amazing place to work and study. It is a vibrant and complex ecosystem that will continue to evolve, adapt, and grow.