Penn thinks big on small-scale research

Over in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, they’re really sweating the small stuff these days.

That’s because, in the words of Vijay Kumar, deputy dean for research in SEAS, “small is big.”

The small stuff we’re talking about here is really small — the size of a single atom or molecule. Penn researchers are busy pushing these atoms and molecules around, one by one, to see what happens and create devices and processes that will change the way we live.

The field in which all this work is being done is known as nanotechnology, and Penn is betting a lot on its future.

Nanotechnology holds out the possibility that doctors will be better able to diagnose and treat patients. It could lead to smaller yet more powerful computers. And it could become an important source of high-tech jobs for the Philadelphia region.

Penn’s current nanotechnology research and development efforts seek to exploit all these possibilities.

Two institutes form the heart of Penn’s nanotechnology work. One, the Center for Science and Engineering of Nanoscale Systems (SEMS), is focused on the basic research. The other, the Nanotechnology Institute (NTI), is a partnership focused on education and job development.

Dawn Bonnell, professor of materials science and engineering and director of SEMS, said that Penn’s push into nanotechnology is part of a larger trend. “I don’t know of a university that isn’t making investments in nanotechnology,” she said. “You can’t have a viable research program 15 years from now without it.”

SEMS brings together faculty in SEAS, the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Medicine and provides them with a place to exchange ideas and projects. It aims to capitalize on Penn’s strengths in medicine, information science and molecular engineering.

The University, already a leader in carbon nanotube research, is also a leader in the invention of state-of-the-art nanoscale measuring devices. “We were the first to use these imaging techniques, and we hold several patents,” Kumar said.

Currently, 17 Penn faculty are affiliated with SEMS, conducting more than $4 million worth of sponsored research each year. The University is also investing another $1 million to recruit new faculty that will raise that number to 30 and create a new graduate fellowship program in SEMS.

Promising research has already come out of SEMS. For example, researchers in the Materials Science and Engineering Department and the School of Medicine have already produced nanoscale particles of a metal oxide that can be used to improve the quality and intensity of medical images.

David Luzzi, associate professor of materials science and engineering and a member of NTI’s three-person management committee, hopes that when the time comes to produce this oxide commercially, it will be made in the region with locally-trained labor.

“The ENIAC historical marker reminds me every day what I don’t want the NTI to be,” he said, referring to earlier groundbreaking research at Penn that others elsewhere exploited. “We want to build a regional infrastructure that can spur economic development.”

That process has two main pillars: applied research and education. Luzzi stressed that the latter was every bit as important as the former.

“Why did Intel go to Phoenix and not Austin [when it decided to open a new factory]? Because there was no labor pool left in Austin,” he said. So NTI’s first major project is to develop a nanotechnology training curriculum involving 11 colleges, universities and medical centers from here to Johnstown and eight community colleges in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland.

Luzzi also sees this project as “a great way to get underrepresented groups onto career paths in high-tech.”

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Originally published on October 25, 2001