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MIT student blogger Melis A. '08

Smaller than the eye can see by Melis A. '08

but with the potential to change the world: nanotech!

“Nanotechnology will let us build computers that are incredibly powerful. We’ll have more power in the volume of a sugar cube than exists in the entire world today.” – Ralph Merkle, nanotechnology researcher and cryptographer, 1997

Given the hype surrounding the potential applications of nanotechnology, it’s quite understandable that many students are interested in studying the field in college. At a recent admitted student event (*shout out to Nate and his friend Alicia*), I spoke with one high school senior (not Nate…or his friend…) who was concerned that MIT did not offer any majors or minors in nanotechnology. Rest assured that there are countless opportunities to learn about nanotech. Given the vague definition of the term (think of how many things are on the nanoscale) and its interdisciplinary nature, you can be in practically any science/engineering major and get exposure to the field. I’ll try to give a brief overview of some nanotech-related classes and research experiences.

Just to whet your appetite, MIT has some of the best nanotech research around!
On the bio-nanotech side:
Yesterday, in my class called “Designing and Sustaining Technology Innovation for Global Health Practice,” (HST.939) we had a lecture by the world-famous biomedical engineer and MIT professor Robert Langer. He’s won almost every science/engineering award available, and is famous for his use of polymers for controlled drug delivery. If listening to him speak about his research doesn’t get you jazzed up about biomedical research, then I don’t know what will.

My senior thesis project is on nanoparticles and I’m doing it in the Lab for Multiscale Regenerative Technology, led by Prof. Sangeeta Bhatia. She has done really cool work with designing injectable multifunctional nanoparticles for cancer treatment, among other things. My previous UROP was in the BioInstrumentation Lab and there is nanotech research going on there, too. For example, one grad student is developing polymer nanowires for implantation in the brain.

Within the Biological Engineering department, researchers in the Lang Lab use a laser “tractor-beam” to manipulate single molecules and cells (and I had used a similar setup to manipulate and assemble nanowires at the National Institute of Standards and Technology). The Hamad-Schifferli Group is attaching DNA and proteins to nanoparticles with applications in therapy and disease diagnosis.

On the physical science side:

Professor Mildred Dresselhaus, Institute Professor and Professor of Physics and Electrical Engineering, was a carbon nanotube pioneer. She is now “developing innovative materials for controlling temperatures that could lead to substantial energy savings by allowing more efficient car engines, photovoltaic cells and electronic devices.” (News Office) MechE professor Gang Chen is trying to increase energy efficiency using nanotechnology. Professor Angela Belcher of the Material Science department combines chemistry, biology, material science, and electrical engineering to engineer biomaterials for electronic and medicinal applications. MIT also has an Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology that is led by Material Science professor Ned Thomas.

Hopefully you get the picture…the list above is by no means exhaustive and it’s absolutely astounding to see the plethora of cutting-edge research happening on campus. I think the most valuable way to explore the field is to get a UROP in one of the many labs that do nanotech research. If you’re looking for a more formal education, there are many classes available. The majors with the most obvious connection to nanotechnology are Mechanical Engineering, Material Science and Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Biology, and Biological Engineering.

There are categories of classes that fall under “MEMS and Nanotechnology” within each of the following majors, such as…

Within the Mechanical Engineering major:
-2.370 Molecular Mechanics: Introduction to the fundamentals of molecular modeling in engineering, with emphasis on mechanical engineering applications. Discussion of molecular approaches to modern nanoscale engineering problems. Introduction to molecular simulation.
-2.674 Micro/Nano Engineering Laboratory (New): Concepts, ideas and enabling tools of nano science and engineering taught through projects which include learning about MEMS, microfluidics, nanomaterials and characterization tools such as SEM, TEM, STM and AFM. Designed for undergraduates who want to pursue study in micro/nano technology.
-2.372J Design and Fabrication of MEMS: Introduction to microsystem design.
-2.391J Submicrometer and Nanometer Technology: Surveys techniques to fabricate and analyze submicron and nanometer structures, with applications. Undergraduates with permission of instructor.

Within the Material Science and Engineering major:
-3.052 Nanomechanics of Materials and Biomaterials: Latest scientific developments and discoveries in the field of nanomechanics, i.e. the deformation of extremely tiny (10-9 meters) areas of synthetic and biological materials.
-3.063 Polymer Physics: The mechanical, optical, and transport properties of polymers are presented with respect to the underlying physics and physical chemistry of polymers in melt, solution, and solid state.
-3.155J Micro/Nano Processing Technology (Same subject as 6.152J): Introduces the theory and technology of micro/nano fabrication.

Within the Electrical Engineering department:
6.701 Introduction to Nano Electronics (New): Quantization, wavefunctions and Schrodinger?s equation. Introduction to electronic properties of molecules, carbon nanotubes and crystals. Energy band formation and the origin of metals, insulators and semiconductors. Ballistic transport, Ohm’s law, ballistic versus traditional MOSFETs, fundamental limits to computation.

Within the Biological Engineering department (basically every class involves nanoscale phenomena…):
20.342 Molecular Structure of Biological Materials: Basic molecular structural principles of biological materials. Molecular structures of various materials of biological origin, including collagen, silk, bone, protein adhesives, GFP, self-assembling peptides. Molecular design of new biological materials for nanotechnology, biocomputing and regenerative medicine.
20.361J Molecular and Engineering Aspects of Biotechnology” Biological and bioengineering principles underlying the development and use of recombinant proteins as therapeutic drugs; fundamentals of therapeutic protein action, including cell-cell and cell-matrix interactions and intracellular signaling pathways; classes of protein therapeutics; post-translational processing and secretion of proteins; gene cloning and expression in mammalian cells; physiology of cell growth and in vitro cultivation; site-specific mutation of proteins; protein pharmacology and delivery.

22 responses to “Smaller than the eye can see”

  1. Edgar says:

    As always, thanks so much for the incredibly informative entry, Melis! grin

  2. Ana Vana says:

    Nanotech rocks my world.

  3. Snively says:

    Apparently 72% of Americans think nanotech is “morally unacceptable.” I disagree.

  4. Bryan says:

    RE: Snively. I have read that article and in my opinion, we would be lucky if two thirds of Americans knew exactly what nanotechnology is or what its possible advantageous applications are. Also there was not much information on how representative this survey was so I wouldn’t count on it being so reliable.

    I too see no problem with using nanotechnology. It will really change the world in a short time.

    Also great blog Melis.

  5. E. Rosser says:

    Hear, Hear, Bryan. Once again, science serves those who know not its name.
    Better write that one down… Ah, nevermind, ’twasn’t that deep…

  6. pratik says:

    Hi Melis!
    Thumbs up for a really nice blog!I recently read an article on nanotech saying that technology is being developed with which the processing in a computer will take place through photons.This will replace the traditional silicon wafer and semiconductor technology and increase the processing speed tremendously.Also this will get rid of the problem of computers getting overheated.I would like to know more about this technology so if you happen to know something about it I would be really happy if you made it the subject of your next blog.

  7. Micki says:

    Nanotechnology will completely change the whole world!
    I am so excited reading about it.
    It is simply amazing!

  8. Samujjal says:

    Thanks so much for the amazing post Melis..

    Nanotech is truly the next big thing. Its no wonder that three of The TR Top Ten Emerging Technologies of 2008( based on Nanotech including Graphene Transistors (being developed at MIT’s Lincoln Lab…Duh!), Nano Radio and Probabilistic Chips. When the Bible of all Techies says that, you can bet its a thing to watch out for. Its really no surprise that MIT is at the forefront of Nanotech research.

    Did you guys know that MIT, Stanford and UC Berkeley together are working together on cutting edge Nanotech Research via the MIT · Stanford · Berkeley Nanotechnology Forum. Three of the world’s top tech universities coming together, its gotta be huge. Check out their website….

  9. Tanmay says:

    If you are thinking how would you connect nanotech with outer space, here.

    And, nice blog Melis!

  10. nick says:

    The article claims that the people surveyed were knowledgeable about nanotech and that they disagreed mainly on moral principle.

    First it claims that people group it with stem cell research, but the statement that the people are aware of what nanotech is and how it could be advantageous would lead to the assumption that the people were aware of the differences between the two. So none of the stem cell arguments would hold.

    The only argument that the article does not immediately counteract is calling it “playing God” when materials that are not in nature are created. In my opinion, this is a horrible argument because it would mean anything man made is immoral.

    So, I wonder what arguments there are for the immorality of nanotech, other than ignorance. Likely the question itself was biased to create a negative response.

  11. shubhang says:

    I had taken the January SAT Subject Test Examination however the reports have not yet been processed in the tracker. Should I be worried about this and send another rush report??
    Also would 1530/1600 in Physics and Maths
    Level 1 add anything to my application.
    Pl. reply—anyone.

  12. Akshay says:

    Hey Melis!
    A really informative entry.
    Though I have a question. Can a student take some research in this field through interdisciplinary study. I mean like I’m an intended Course 6-3 major. So can I do some research in this field if I get in?

  13. Melis says:

    Hi Akshay,

    Yes, there is even a course 6-3 major in my lab. Your major doesn’t really dictate what kind of research you do!

  14. Akshay says:

    That’s great to hear Melis. And I’m really looking forward to it.

  15. Libin Daniel says:

    Thanks Tanmay for the link..
    hey Melis, a great post. Can you please tell something that links up the nanotechnology with those mammoth structures called aircrafts or Aeronautical Engineering?
    Spying Flying Machines??

  16. Anonymous says:

    @ Libin

    This link might help you a bit …Even I’m interested in Aerospace…

  17. soaham says:

    this isn’t exactly what u asked for, but related –
    NASA is counting on nanotech to keep its astronauts healthy during long stays in space.
    1. looking to siignificantly reduce the size of machines for MRI’s and CT-scans, because the current leviathans can not be lugged around on spaceships
    2. Trying to develop ‘nano-bots’ that will roam the body and deal highly precise, target specific therapy
    They hope to get these technologies ready in time for a mission to Mars, currently projected to launch in 2020. Needless to say, these innovations will kind of revolutionize healthcare here on earth too !!

  18. Charlotte says:

    A video on brain-healing bridges developed by MIT scientists:

    It doesn’t elaborate on the exact nature of the molecules and the mechanism applied though.

  19. Gwen '08 says:

    Melis! Hi! First off, we need to get Ethiopian soon. Second, I’m currently in a really really cool glass on simulation and modeling that links all different scales, continuum to atomistic. It’s 1.021J with like 10 other majors. The profs are from 1, 16, and 3. Just thought your fans might be interested in it too.

  20. Melis says:

    Thanks, everyone, for the news tips! The homepage today happens to feature nanotech research from Robert Langer’s lab:

    Gwen, that class sounds cool! Write about it =)

  21. Jalpan Dave says:

    Sorry to jump in so late but I just cannot believe I missed this post. I’m a freshman (not in MIT, elsewhere) and I want to foray into Nanotechnology through either a UROP or I might probably propose a project of my own.

    Melis, can you please advise me on how I can get some background knowledge in Nanotechnology in order to prepare for my project? Also, do you know of any nanotechnology journals online where I can read about the latest research? So far, all I’ve been doing is going to the research section on MIT’s site and reading the news but nothing beyond that.

    I’m sorry if you’ve covered this in the above entry but I have a paranoid feeling that the 30 days to post comments will be up any second so I’ll quickly post this first and then read word for word!!!! ^_^