Friday, June 26, 2009

On Being an Exhibitionist

As I type these words, I am sitting on an airplane returning from Denver to Atlanta, having just hosted an NRC exhibit booth at the Transducers 2009 conference. This conference is also known as the International Conference on Solid-State Sensors, Actuators, and Microsystems, so you can see why it is traditionally known as Transducers.

In recent years, the Nanotechnology Research Center has exhibited at a wide variety of scientific and trade conferences, with the goal of promoting awareness of the center among practitioners (academic, government, and commercial) of micro/nano research, fabrication and characterization. As you are probably aware, our role within the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network obligates Georgia Tech to encourage and support usage of our facilities by both internal and external (non Georgia Tech) users. Conference exhibits are one tool in the marketing arsenal that has proven effective in reaching out to the international research community. I have noticed several encouraging trends over the years that I have been attending conferences as an NRC representative.

First, Georgia Tech has growing name recognition, and is known for its activities, along with our NNIN partners, for the quality of its faculty and students, as well as its resources and capabilities. Many people were aware of the new Marcus Nanotechnology Building, if not by name, and were astounded to hear of its specifications.

Second, I find that after two years I don’t need to provide as lengthy an explanation of how we operate as a user facility, for either on-site, hands-on or remote usage. I cannot be sure if this is related to my first point above, or is due to the improved quality of our marketing materials (booth design and brochures).

Third, although there are a variety of other resources available to researchers for fabrication and manufacturing scale-up (foundry services), the NRC (and NNIN) remain one of the few options for direct, hands-on usage. Still, although people appear to value this capability, the vast majority of potential users would prefer to contract the processing to our staff. I remain perplexed as to why individuals are willing to cede control of their own research or processes, and I am seeking ways to further encourage on-site work by our external users.

Finally, depending on the venue, there emerge some common interests, and it is gratifying to realize that the NRC is almost always in a position to assist in these areas. At Transducers, the most common needs were deposition of piezoelectric materials, deep reactive ion etching, and electron beam lithography, all strengths of the NRC.

It is good to be home, but I think the hard promotional work, made easier by the pleasant venues and joy of travel, is paying off.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Alphabet Soup

Summer time always reminds me of food at the Nanotechnology Research Center. As anyone who has ever been a user or a staff member will tell you, the NRC, like my Jewish mother, will feed you until you beg for mercy. If it is not the bagels on Friday morning, the BBQ lunches, the catered vendor seminars, or the birthday cakes, then it is the edibles (usually bad for my diet) left in the Micro CafĂ© for the random hungry passerby. However, the alphabet soup I am referring to here is not the kind from the familiar red and white Campbell’s can, but rather the acronyms of the summer visitors that populate the NRC hallways, carrels, and cleanroom this time of year. And this summer, thanks to the efforts of NNIN Education Coordinator Nancy Healy and many others, it seems as if the assortment is more varied than ever.

If you see someone new in the Pettit or Marcus building, introduce yourself and ask them what program they are on. If they give you a single syllable answer that would be more at home in a game of Scrabble, here is a lexicon to help you out.

TAG – When I was in high school, I spent the summers mowing the lawn, watching TV, and working in my home darkroom. Through the Technology Association of Georgia and its new program of high school internships, there is now an opportunity for engineering-minded teens to work alongside seasoned NRC staff.

RET – As any teacher will tell you, student’s summer vacation is rarely a time for teachers to lounge on the beach with a drink and a trashy novel. Most teachers I know use this time (usually unpaid) for professional development, and the Research Experience for Teachers is a great way to gain some first-hand understanding of microfabrication and nanotechnology that they can incorporate into their curricula for the fall.

REU – I remember my first research experience in college; I worked in the Oral Physiology Lab of the Dental School where I counted taste buds on neonatal rats. More importantly, there was no formal mechanism or supporting organizations to help me acquire this position. Thankfully, most universities now promote, support, and fund undergraduate research as an important component in students’ education. The NSF-sponsored Research Experience for Undergraduates is a program of mentored research in a wide variety of science and engineering fields to encourage students to pursue graduate education and careers in these areas.

SURE and LEF – As the demographics of this country change, it is vitally important that we improve diversity within every area of science and engineering, and I am pleased that Georgia Tech graduates the nation’s largest contingent of African-American engineers. The Summer Undergraduate Research in Engineering/Science Program is designed to attract minority students to technical career areas. The Laboratory Experience for Faculty is an NNIN program to provide access to advanced research facilities to faculty from minority institutions, and the NRC has been privileged to host summer visitors in this program for the last two years.

At its heart, as a part of an institution of higher education, the NRC is a place to teach and to learn. This educational mission can come in many forms, from the research of undergraduate students, graduate students and post-docs (who are apprentices, after all) to preaching the benefits (and risks) of nanotechnology to future engineers and scientists (our school-age children), their teachers, and their parents (the voting and tax-paying public). Let's enjoy the summer's warm weather along with some alphabet soup.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Biotech, Nanotech, and BIO

Maybe you heard about it on the radio or read about it in the newspaper. Maybe you saw some of the many visitors clogging the streets of Atlanta or touring around Georgia Tech. The commotion was the annual conference of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) which took place at the Georgia World Congress Center from May 18-22.

BIO was unlike any scientific conference I have ever attended. With its focus on exhibition, both academic and industry achievements were showcased within state and national pavilions, and there was ample opportunity for corporate and political entities to mix, mingle, discuss, and deal. A highlight of the Georgia Pavilion was the announcement by Governor Sonny Perdue and Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson of the new Global Center for Medical Innovation (GCMI), which will be housed at Technology Enterprise Park, at the perimeter of Tech’s campus.

Although most of the attention was on the exhibition, I did attend several symposia that touched on the intersection of biotechnology and nanotechnology. In one session, titled “Transformational Tools: How New Research Technologies are Changing the Rules of the Game,” a panel of CEOs from both emerging and mature companies described a variety of new reagents and devices. Accuri Cytometers seeks to “democratize” the application of flow cytometry by developing a small and inexpensive flow cytometer for individual research labs that can compete with the larger units found in core facilities. Life Technologies (a recent merger between Applied Biosystems and Invitrogen) markets QDot probes for diagnostic applications. In an earlier session on cancer nanomedicine, Joe Beechem (VP, Corp. Res. Lab) elucidated the use of these quantum dot labels for single molecule detection in microfluidic flow channels. In particular, Joe described how the problem of non-specific binding can be evaded through the use of multiple colors which significantly improve the statistical odds of positive detections. The link between research and clinical genetics is shortened through the single molecule, whole genome analysis offered by BioNanomatrix. Finally, RainDance Technologies has commercialized a unique microdroplet platform that allows researchers to detect, sort, and capture individual picoliter environments at rapid rates. This venture stems from research at Harvard University, The Medical Research Centre in Cambridge, England, and the ESPCI in Paris. These examples highlight the path whereby nanoscale materials and devices will enhance the toolbox available for biotech discovery and applications.

While taking in the robust discussion of these novel technologies, I was struck by the realization that the theme of the BIO conference was the importance of both the utility and originality of technology itself. This point was driven home by one CEO who told the audience to forget about their own innovative, high-tech offerings and instead focus on the specific needs of the customers. This is not a lesson taught in graduate school, but one learned throughout the course of professional life.