To be summa cum laude
Not long ago, it was a rarity for a university to include a program dedicated to nanotechnology on its roster. But in recent years, graduate-level and even undergraduate-level classes and degrees have cropped up in institutions across the globe. Nanotechnology’s rising profile has created opportunities - and challenges - for universities, as directors of three programs explain in an exchange with Small Times’ Candace Stuart.
Q: Are educational institutions with nanotechnology programs in a global competition for students and faculty? Is that a recent phenomenon? What has fueled this competition?
Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, Rice University
ADAMS: Yes. It is not really recent; it is as longstanding as nano is - say 15 years. There has always been competition, and the intensity ebbs and flows with factors like the economy of the U.S., immigration and visa laws, etc.
The rapid growth of nanotech has fueled the competition. Rice was the first nanotech center, and now there are more than 130 in the U.S. in academia alone. Everyone wants to hire faculty and find students, and the flow of foreign students has been (hopefully temporarily) slowed, so there are fewer total students available.
KALOYEROS: The global competition for faculty and students has intensified due to: (1) the lack of an adequate pool of faculty and professionals with training in nanoscience and nanoengineering; (2) the push by states, countries and regions to build research university-based high tech economies; and (3) the increasingly higher value placed on human intellectual capital as a primary innovation driver. However, the UAlbany College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE) has focused on collaboration instead of competition by building cross-border and cross-continent partnerships that leverage combined resources and maximize return on investment.
SIVOTHTHAMAN: Suitable students are out there. I think it is rather a question of being an institution with high reputation. As far as faculty hiring is concerned, yes, there is some competition. In new initiatives involving research-intensive and emerging areas, you want to attract, hire, and retain top-notch researchers.
Q: How are you recruiting students and faculty? What methods have proven successful and unsuccessful?
President, Albany NanoTech;
VP, College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, University at Albany-SUNY
ADAMS: Via individual faculty members in their departments. CNST (Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology) doesn’t have a recruiting program, per se, but we send prospective students to the appropriate department. We are also starting some specific international collaborative programs.
Nothing beats direct personal knowledge and word-of-mouth recommendations for finding and attracting great students. Also, good research and publications lead to good student and faculty interest.
KALOYEROS: The UAlbany CNSE has developed a proactive recruitment strategy for faculty and students. We found that targeted and personalized attraction efforts that are customized to the interests and needs of specific candidates are extremely effective. In contrast, generic “one-size-fits-all” recruitment methods have been largely a failure.
SIVOTHTHAMAN: Our undergraduate program in nanotechnology engineering is unique and new; the first batch of our nanotech undergraduate students joined the university last fall (2005). We did present the program initiative in high schools and university fairs. We received a huge number of applications, and we now have the top students in our program. For recruiting faculty, we reach out through highly reputed journals and the Web.
Q: Which ranks as your top priority and why: advancing basic knowledge in nanoscience and technology; advancing technical knowledge; developing technologies for commercialization; or developing a trained workforce?
Director of nanotechnology engineering,
University of Waterloo
ADAMS: In a big institute such as CNST (110 faculty), all are important. Some faculty are better known for basic science and engineering, while others are noted entrepreneurs. All are interested in producing trained and educated nanotech graduates (without a nanotech degree, however.) And we publish a lot and obtain patents, too.
KALOYEROS: There is no question in that advancing basic knowledge is the essential enabling ingredient and, as such, ranks as our top priority. Advancement of basic knowledge ensures exploration and discovery of the critical innovations needed to develop a sound technical knowledge and execute viable commercialization paths. Also, it provides an optimized pathway for educating and training the skilled nanotechnology savvy workforce. But all four outcomes are important.
SIVOTHTHAMAN: Very tempting to say “all!” Nanotech at Waterloo is multifaceted. We have an undergraduate program initiative and a strong research initiative. We are looking at an area that is highly interdisciplinary, already into several industry sectors, and yet, still emerging and expanding. Therefore, each of those four outcomes is important. If I am to pick one I would pick advancing basic knowledge in nanoscience and technology.
Q: Do most of the students in your nano programs stay in the region after they graduate? If not, where do they go and why?
ADAMS: We haven’t studied this numerically, but we don’t offer a B.S. or Ph.D. in nano, only a master’s degree in nanoscale physics that is part business. Those grads have mostly stayed in the area and are in companies. Our Ph.D.s are split among business (maybe 50 percent stay local) and academia (postdocs, mostly go), with a few to national labs.
KALOYEROS: The career path followed by our students has run the geographical and professional gamut of employment opportunities in the high tech industry. The lion’s share of our students has been heavily recruited by the major international nanoelectronics corporations across the U.S. and the world. However, a rapidly increasing percentage is choosing to remain in New York’s Hudson Valley.
SIVOTHTHAMAN: It’s mixed. The region itself is Canada’s Technology Triangle Area and a significant number stay. There is also an increasing interest in grad programs. One of the advantages of the co-op nature of Waterloo’s undergraduate education is that our students are exposed to opportunities at an early stage.
Q: What do you see as the greatest weakness in your institution’s nano initiative?
ADAMS: The interdisciplinarity of nano is the root of its greatest potential and its greatest challenges. Universities are almost all organized around departments of a single discipline. Education, and to some extent research, occurs within the framework of departments, even in the universities that are most successful at fostering interdisciplinary research. How to best support interdisciplinary initiatives, given that departments are almost certain to remain the fundamental organizing unit of most campuses, is one of the most significant challenges facing universities today.
KALOYEROS: This is a difficult question to answer, particularly as CNSE has only been in operation since April 2004. Probably the biggest challenge we faced is name recognition within the traditional academic community.
SIVOTHTHAMAN: By looking at the way we are expanding in strategic areas, I think we are on the right path.
Q: Is your institution getting support from your regional and/or national governments ? If so, in what form?
ADAMS: State: no money, lots of enthusiasm. National: research funding steady but very much effort required to win grants. We receive some special appropriations for equipment support through a multi-university consortium that requires a lot of effort to sustain.
Our program was built a decade ago by (Nobel Laureate) Rick Smalley and supporters by raising a substantial fund of private money that built a new building, endowed new professorships, endowed a couple of postdoc positions, and provided a startup fund for equipment purchase. We haven’t had another campaign like that, but it may be time to do it again.
KALOYEROS: The leadership of the state of New York has been instrumental in the establishment within CNSE of the intellectual assets and state-of-the-art facilities necessary to successfully create and sustain a highly competitive program. The state of New York has invested more than $600 million [along with industry and federal funding] to create a $3 billion nanotechnology mega-complex.
SIVOTHTHAMAN: Both provincial and national governments have been strongly supporting our institution in accomplishing our goals. Industry participation is a must in almost all government support programs. This combination of government/industry support is key to building our competitive programs.
Q: Are you collaborating with industry in research or education? How does that help you achieve your goals?
ADAMS: We have a number of industry-sponsored research programs that support faculty members by providing money for grad students or postdocs, and we are negotiating for more sponsorships. We are doing a short course for one company and have requests for two-to-three hour topical short courses, as well. We are also working with companies to help develop a community/technical college program for associate degrees in nanotechnology.
Our goals are to provide education and research in nanotechnology, and to transfer that to the world. Industry assists greatly in achieving those goals.
KALOYEROS: CNSE has already established successful research and education partnerships with more than 150 computer nanochip producers, equipment manufacturers, materials suppliers and OEMs. In addition, the CNSE complex houses major R&D operations with leading nanoelectronics concerns.
Our collaborations have ensured the establishment of the resources necessary for our faculty and students to conduct cutting-edge research and education activities.
SIVOTHTHAMAN: We have several industry-funded research projects, industrial research chairs and also partnership programs involving industry and government. Our recent multimillion dollar research infrastructures are partly supported by industry. Our education program also benefits from industry in terms of scholarships, assistantships, teaching labs, and of course co-op.