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Teri Odom - Why you should care about molecular nanotechnology

This regular opinion feature asks experts including researchers, business professionals and policy makers the question: “Why should individuals care about nanotechnology?”

Why Care About Nanotechnology?

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Teri Odom,
Assistant Professor, Department of Chemistry, Northwestern University

“We should care about nanotechnology because it can excite even the most jaded student of science. We have creative license to think about how new discoveries in science and engineering can be combined in ways to address hard problems.”
— Teri Odom

Why care about nanotechnology?

Besides the technological prospects that nanotechnology offers (such as sensitive diagnostics, secure communications, and advanced nanocomposites), we should care about nanotechnology because it can excite even the most jaded student of science. We have creative license to think about how new discoveries in science and engineering can be combined in ways to address hard problems. We can test whether revolutionary advances have advantages over evolutionary progress. And perhaps most importantly, nanotechnology can make a mark on education. Because of its inherent multi-disciplinary nature, it can capture the imagination of the next generation of scientists and engineers — it is a small hook that can net a very large catch.

Why is nanotechnology important for the general public to understand?

The promise of nanotechnology is not without its risks. If the public can somehow participate in the scientific discovery process, they can "buy into" the cost and outcome associated with translating nanoscience into a technology. As was evident in the biotechnology effort of genetically modified food, the public does not simply want to accept the fruits of a new technology — they want to be part of the labor that is involved in bringing it to bear. If the public is educated about the science, they can make intelligent decisions regarding the technology, which can right incorrect perceptions (e.g., self-replicating nano-robots) but still raise relevant issues (e.g., privacy). And so education is paramount.

What are your research goals?

We are interested in the science of small structures. We use three distinct but complementary approaches to create nanostructures: top-down, bottom-up, and a combination of both approaches. That is, we combine the ease and control of fabrication with the functionality and crystallinity of chemical methods to produce the most scientifically interesting and technologically useful structures. We are most focused on the unique optical properties of nanostructures as their size, shape, and composition are changed. But we then want to know what happens when they are assembled or organized into well-ordered arrays; how do they interact with each other? These assembled structures often exhibit surprising "collective" properties — which can serve as prototypes for understanding related problems at similar length scales, such as biological processes and systems.

How is your research relevant to the general public?

We have developed a simple and inexpensive set of large-area, nanoscale patterning tools that can reach into broad areas ranging from optical communication to electronic devices to biological assays. We not only use our tools to uncover new science but also exploit them to provide practical ways of assembling and fabricating nanoscale structures over macroscale areas. In one sense, part of what we do is to provide a first step in transitioning nanoscience into an emerging technology.

In context with your research, how do you see it impacting the future?

Because we believe that advances in science and tools are intertwined, our hope is that as the tools we've developed to create nanoscale structures are accessible to researchers in diverse fields, new ways of thinking about problems will result. Thus, scientific progress can be enabled at the interface of different disciplines and also proceed at a much faster pace than would have been possible otherwise.

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