Depth and Breadth a Bonus for Nanotechnology in Academia

University graduates must have skills in depth within a particular subject, a necessary aspect of pursuing the frontier of new knowledge with sufficient dedication to advance these frontiers. Yet, industry, concerned with satisfying consumers, is responsive to new opportunities that continually change. A university graduate may offer just what a given industrial position desires at a given time, but inevitable change may render those skills obsolete. Choosing new research directions more often, even within academic endeavors, is an inevitable part of a world characterized by rapidly expanding frontiers of new knowledge. Depth is an essential ingredient in the university experience, but breadth provides for greater flexibility when change occurs. The challenge to academia is to retain its strength in creating new knowledge while offering increasingly important breadth in its educational programs. Pursued separately, adding breadth to a student's experience can be satisfied by extending the time on campus, but this is costly and not particularly productive towards developing new knowledge, one of the primary goals of academia. Both professors and students are reluctant to substitute nondisciplinary courses in a curriculum already heavily laden with disciplinary material. What would be ideal in the academic experience would be to introduce breadth while simultaneously pursuing depth.

The subject of nanotechnology offers this opportunity, due to the multidisciplinary nature of the field. Researcher #1 in the field of chemistry or physics, for example, may wish to obtain knowledge of the structure of self-assembled particles, which may be of interest to researcher #2 in the field of electronics, who is interested in examining ways to fabricate quantum dots or novel structures for transistors. This is but one small example of the many opportunities that arise for joint objectives bridging disciplines. Such opportunities are labeled "nano-niches." These situations offer the student not only the opportunity to examine a phenomenon in depth, but to exchange results with similar activities in neighboring fields, where new perspectives may be obtained about other disciplines with relatively little additional effort (see schematic in Figure F.1).

Figure F.1. Nanotechnology offers hope of depth plus breadth.

The value of multidisciplinary research has been extolled for years. However, it is impossible to have multidisciplinary research without having disciplines! Organizational changes that universities are now introducing include structures that encourage multidisciplinary pursuits, with consequent benefits to the student and the educational process. Breadth may be introduced by pursuing research objectives that have common features across disciplinary lines and by associating with more than one discipline. By encouraging "social interaction" (use of common instrumentation, materials, and theory) with peers in neighboring disciplines, the related frontiers in other disciplines may be easily introduced. This provides a graduate with stronger career opportunities, having the combined ability to pursue research in depth, but also having the ability to recognize additional options when the inevitable need for alternate opportunities arises.

Sharing expensive instrumentation in a common facility is one way to stimulate overlap of the academic disciplines, and this has been introduced extensively for nanotechnology. The National Nanofabrication Users Network (http://www.nnun.org/) consists of instrumentation centers at five major universities. A number of centers and institutes (http://www.nano.gov/centers.htm) have been introduced that stimulate the overlap of disciplines pursuing common goals. These organizations focus on objectives such as chemical and biological sensors, electron transport in molecules, nanoelectronics, assembly of nanostructures, and nanoscale devices/systems and their applications. These "academic nano-niches" are already established, and they will generate the benefits of multidisciplinary programs, with the concurrent advantages of depth and breadth. Other means of stimulating overlap involves common courses, seminars, and temporary exchanges of personnel.

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