Training the Future Developers of Nanotechnology

In the new era of converging technologies, one can become either a generalist and be superficially capable in many fields, or one can become a specialist and master a single field. If one chooses the former route, one is unlikely to produce deep, insightful work. If one chooses the latter route, then it is only possible to take full advantage of the convergence of the technologies by working in collaboration with others who are expert in the other relevant fields. Unfortunately, our present educational system does not foster the type of individual who works well in collaborations.

To achieve the training of good scientists who have the capacity to work well in multidisciplinary groups, there are several new kinds of traits necessary. The first and perhaps most difficult is to learn to communicate across the disciplines. We learn the technical language of our respective disciplines and use it to convey our thoughts as clearly and precisely as possible. However, researchers in other disciplines are unfamiliar with the most technical language we prefer to use. When talking across the bridges we seek to build, we must learn to translate accurately but clearly to intelligent listeners who will not know our respective languages. We must begin to train our students to learn the skill of communicating across the disciplinary divides. We must develop programs in which students are systematically called upon to explain their work or the work of others to their peers in other areas. Thus, the best programs will be those that throw the students of the diverse disciplines together. Narrowly focused programs may turn out neuroscientists superbly trained for some functions, but they will not be good at collaborative efforts with scientists in other fields without considerable additional work. They will not easily produce the next generation of researcher who successfully forms collaborative efforts to use the new converging technologies.

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Figure F.2. The positioning of a cochlear implant in the human cochlea.

We should also begin to systematically pose challenges to our students such that they must work in teams of mixed skills, teams of engineers, mathematicians, biologists, chemists, and cognitive scientists. This will provide the flavor of the span that will be required. We cannot train our students to be expert in this broad a range of fields; therefore, we must train and encourage them to communicate across the range and to seek out and work with experts who offer the expertise that will allow the best science to be done. Funding agencies must continue to enlarge the mechanisms that support this type of work if they want to have a unique position in fostering the development and optimal utilization of the new technologies as applied to neuroscience, among other fields.

My experience with the Telluride Workshop on Neuromorphic Engineering has given me some important insights into the optimal methods for educating for the future. It has shown me that it will be easier to train engineers to understand biology, than to train biologists to comprehend engineering. There are some notable exceptions, fortunately, such as Miguel Nicolelis and Rodolfo Llinas. Among biologists, there is beginning to be curiosity and enthusiasm for engineering, robotics, and the new emerging technologies. This must be fostered through showcasing technological accomplishments such as successful robotic efforts and the analog VLSI retinas and cochleas developed using neuromorphic engineering. We must also try harder to get biologists to attend the Telluride Workshop and to stay long enough to gain some insights into the power of the approach. The field of nanobiotechnology is growing much faster among engineers than among biologists. We must work harder to improve our outreach to biologists.

The formation of workshops such as Telluride is a good venue for beginning to put together the necessary groups for the exploitation of the new methods being developed in nanotechnology. It is likely that the full potential for nanodevices will only be reached by uniting engineers with biologists. Biologists presently have little exposure to information about nanotechnology. Comparatively, the engineers know relatively little about the real neuronal substrate with which they seek to interface. It will not be a trivial task to actually understand what will emerge when nanotubes are directly contacting neurons, stimulating them, and recording from them. It will require considerable expertise and imagination. Exposing biologists to the potential power and usefulness of the technology, and exposing engineers to the complexity of the biological substrate, can only come about through intense interactions; it cannot come about through groups operating alone. The journal Science has done a great deal to bring nanotechnology to the attention of the general scientist. However, no true understanding can come without hard work.

Development of novel bioengineering programs will be another approach to development of nanotechnology. Training biologists and engineers in the same educational program will go a long way to overcoming some of the present ignorance. Nanotechnology is difficult. The underlying chemistry and physics will not come easily to everyone. It is most likely that the best method of developing it is through explicit programmatic efforts to build collaborative teams of engineers and biologists. Summer workshops can provide the incentives by exposing individuals to the potentials of the union, but only through full-fledged educational programs can the efforts move forward effectively.

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