Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Open Access (and Prof. Mostafa El-Sayed)

This is not exactly a “my dog ate my homework” excuse, but it is close.  I had intended to write about the events related to Georgia Tech’s Open Access Week closer to the time of their occurrence, but something else got in the way.

That something was my work in helping to organize and then attend the Southeastern Regional Meeting of the American Chemical Society (SERMACS) which was held in Atlanta Nov. 12-16. The theme of the meeting was “Building Chemical Bonds”, and it highlighted, through a wide variety of symposia, workshops, and events, the benefits of collaborative relationships between academia, industry and government.  While I spent a good portion of my time at the conference helping to support the IEN exhibit booth, I did have a chance to attend a wonderful 1.5 day symposium organized to celebrate the 80th birthday of nanotechnology luminary Prof. Mostafa El-Sayed (Georgia Tech).  Peppered with old photos and reminiscences of Prof. El-Sayed’s prolific career by colleagues, friends and former students, the symposium also highlighted the influence he has had on the field by the rich diversity of technical topics presented by the distinguished group of speakers including Mark Ratner, Chad Mirkin, Naomi Halas, Catherine Murphy, Jeff Zink, and Younan Xia, to name a few.  His technical leadership in nanoscale science, nanomedicine, and spectroscopy has resulted in his group’s more than 600 publications consistently among the most cited in chemistry. In addition, nearly every speaker commented on Prof. El-Sayed’s kindness and generous nature, and many of the shared photos depicted group holiday meals celebrated at the El-Sayed household.

This post is really about the Open Access Week celebrated at Georgia Tech the week of Oct. 21-25.  While typically centered around events that contribute to a discussion of journal publications and the growing movement to reduce the economic burdens for universities and individual researchers to mine their rich content, this year the Georgia Tech Library also partnered with the Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology to highlight another aspect of open access, that of access to research resources.  The IEN is a natural fit for this conversation, as our open, shared user facilities are designed to foster exactly the same type of freedom of access to research infrastructure as is analogous to that of research results and publications.  In particular, through our Nano@Tech program, the Library and IEN co-hosted both an informational seminar and hands-on workshop on the topic of nanoHUB.  NanoHUB, a program of the NSF-funded Network for Computational Nanotechnology and run by Purdue University, is an “online gateway to simulation, research, collaboration and teaching in the nano-sciences” with nearly 300,000 world-wide users of the site.

Click on the map to see the growth in nanoHUB global users.
The seminar titled “Mythbusting Scientific Knowledge Transfer with nanoHUB.org: Collaborative Research and Dissemination with Quantifiable Impact on Research and Education” was an overview of nanoHUB.org’s many offerings presented from the viewpoint of a user, Dr. Tim Fisher from Purdue’s School of Mechanical Engineering and the Birck Nanotechnology Center.  This was followed in the afternoon by a workshop facilitated by Dr. Tanya Faltens, where Georgia Tech researchers were given a guided tour of some of the site’s capabilities.  An article in Nature Nanotechnology, entitled "Learning and research in the cloud" by nanoHUB Director Gerhard Klimeck and colleagues that appeared just after Open Access Week, makes the point that this “cyberinfrasturcture” is an ideal environment to meld the dual academic roles of research and education.  As the article concludes:
“nanoHUB offers an easily accessible learning infrastructure that connects teachers and students with the research community. Such cyberenvironments can act as a translational agent that helps transfer new knowledge and methods to learners and researchers in ways that were not possible before.”
It occurred to me as I was finishing up this blog post that both items I have written about, the El-Sayed Symposium at SERMACS and nanoHUB, fundamentally illustrate the same point.  The advancement of science and technology is no longer a solitary pursuit, but rather a very social interaction with all parties dedicated to a common objective of advancing our knowledge of how the universe operates and improving the lot of humankind. This is a lofty goal which can be difficult to achieve in an age where rapid return on investment is a necessity for economic support of the research enterprise; but that is the subject of a different post.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Nano on the Shelf and in our Stomachs

Whenever I speak about nanotechnology, and the work that goes on at the IEN, to students or public audiences, I always discuss the surge in commercial products that contain some nanoscale component over the last decade or so.  I mention that one of my favorite websites, one that is very accessible to a lay person, is the Project on Emerging Technologies.  I have also written on this blog several times about this website and the hope and hype of nanotechnology commercialization efforts.  (As an aside, I was first introduced to the Project website when I came across the instructive and entertaining video “The Twinkie Guide to Nanotechnology” created by then Project director Andrew Maynard.  Check it out for an interesting introduction to this topic.)

One of the more useful aspects of the Project website is that it hosts a database of nanotechnology-related consumer products which had grown to >1300 items when it was last updated.  However, and I can sympathize as one who has recently become active again after a quiet period, the updates stopped in 2010.  Now, the news comes out of the Wilson Center and its new collaborator the Virginia Tech Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology, that the wheels have started turning again on the Consumer Products Inventory (CPI).  The latest version of the inventory lists >1600 products, a 24% increase since 2010.  In addition to a new design that makes it easier to browse, search, and navigate the site, interested scientists and citizens can now register as crowdsource participants, contributing data about the products and the nanoparticle components they contain.  As described on the site:
“By crowdsourcing expertise our goal is to create a 'living' inventory for the exchange of accurate information on nano¬ enabled consumer products. Registered users are encouraged to submit relevant data pertaining to nanoparticle function, location, properties, potential exposure pathways, toxicity and life cycle assessment. Registered users can update product information and add new products.”
As in the past, the vast majority of products, nearly half of those in the inventory, are in the health and fitness category, although the largest percentage increase of products are in the food and beverage group.  Silver is still the most common nano-material, with titanium making a significant jump, nearly tripling in the number of products.  It should come as no surprise that there is a correlation here, with most of the food products containing nanoscale titanium (as titanium dioxide).  The purpose of this ingredient is for the whitening of products (without naming names) such as cream-filled sandwich cookies, cream cheese from a city in the Northeast, and breath mints that jiggle in your pocket.  I am not a food chemist (and do not even play one on TV), so I cannot offer expert advice here.  I will note that most of the producers of these products do not tout this nanotechnology ingredient in their marketing efforts.  You will also find, if you do a quick Google search, that there is a small cottage industry of conspiracy advocates that fears the worst.  On the other hand, numerous studies have found no harmful effects from typical exposure through food ingestion.

As in all aspects of commercial life, caveat emptor.  At least now there is an updated inventory if you want to see what nanotechnology-enhanced products there are to purchase, or not.

Last minute update:  Twinkies?  Yep, they were added to the inventory earlier this year as well.