How to study for a career in nanotechnology

(Nanowerk Spotlight) Students often ask me for advice on how to study for a career in nanotechnology, and as you might imagine, providing a good answer is challenging. “Nanotechnology” refers to a notoriously broad range of areas of science and technology, and progress during a student’s career will open new areas, and some are yet to be imagined. Choices within this complex and changing field should reflect a student’s areas of interest and ability, current background, level of ambition, and willingness to to accept risk — there is a trade-off between pioneering new directions and seeking a secure career path.
Here is an attempt to give a useful answer that takes account of these unknowns. My advice centers on fundamentals, outlining areas of knowledge are are universally important, and offering suggestions for how to approach both specialized choices and learning in general. It includes observations about the future of nanotechnology, the context for future careers.
Learn the fundamentals, and not just in science
The most basic requirement for competence in any physical technology is a broad and solid understanding of the underlying physical sciences. Mathematics is the foundation of this foundation, and basic physics is the next layer. Classical mechanics and electromagnetics are universally important, and the concerns of nanotechnology elevate the importance of thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, and molecular quantum mechanics. A flexible competence in nanotechnology also requires a sound understanding of chemistry and chemical synthesis, of biomolecular structure and function, of intermolecular forces, and of solids and surfaces.
These are important areas of science, but science is not technology. As I’ve discussed in “The Antiparallel Structures of Science and Engineering”, science and engineering are in a deep sense opposites, and must not be confused. Nanotechnology today is a science-intensive area of engineering, largely because the problem of designing a nanostructure is often overshadowed by the problem of finding, by experiment, a way to make it.
This has implications for choosing a course of study.
Engineering and progress in nanotechnology
A measure of progress in nanotechnology is growth of the range of physical systems that can be designed and debugged without extensive experimentation. As a basis for implementing nanoscale digital systems, commercial semiconductor fabrication provides a predictable design domain of this sort, and some areas of structural DNA nanotechnology have become almost as predictable as carpentry.
Computational tools are in a class of their own, an area of immaterial technology that applies to every area of material technology. It’s important to understand the capabilities and limitations of these tools, and extending them makes a strategic contribution to progress. Computational tools tools are often the key to transforming reproducible processes and stable structures into reliable operations and building blocks for engineering. Today, better design tools are the key to unlocking the enormous potential of foldamers and self assembly as a basis for implementing complex nanosystems.
Competence in engineering — and understanding how science can support it — requires study of design principles and experience in solving design problems. As with physics, some lessons apply across many domains. Because nanotechnology relies on innovations in macro- and micro-scale equipment, engineering education has immediate and strong relevance. Looking forward, the growth of nanosystems engineering will open increasing opportunities for researchers with backgrounds that provide both the scientific knowledge necessary to understand new nanotechnologies and the engineering problem-solving abilities necessary to exploit them.
Students aiming to pioneer in directions that can open new worlds of nanotechnology should learn enough of both science and engineering to solve crucial problems at the interface between them. The most important of these is the problem of recognizing and developing the means for systematic engineering in new domains, extracting solid toolsets from the flood of novelty-oriented nanoscience.
In considering all of the above, keep in mind that the general direction of nanotechnology leads toward greater precision at the level of nanoscale components, making products of increasing complexity and size, implemented in an increasing range of materials. Molecular-level atomic precision has widespread applications in nanotechnology today, and already provides components with the ultimate precision at the smallest possible length scale. I expect that the road forward will increasingly focus on extending these atomically precise technologies toward greater scale, complexity, and materials quality. I recommend courses of study that prepare for this.
Choosing topics and ways to study them
In both science and engineering, a good methodology for selecting an ideal course of study would be to survey a course catalog and note which classes appear in lists of prerequisites for advanced classes in relevant areas of science and engineering. This indicates areas where it is important to study and master the content.
Courses toward the periphery of this network of prerequisites are good candidates for a different mode of study, a mode aimed at understanding the problems an area addresses, the methods used to solve them, and how those problems and methods fit in with the rest of science and technology. I discuss this mode of study in “How to Learn About Everything”. It builds knowledge of a kind that can help a student choose topics that call for deeper, focused learning, and it can later help greatly in practical work — scientists and engineers with broader knowledge will see more opportunities and encounter fewer unanticipated problems. These advantages mean fewer days (months, years) lost and greater strides forward.
Choosing institutions
Beyond topics of study, I’m also asked to recommend universities and programs. It’s difficult to give a specific answer, because a good choice depends on all of the above, and because for each of many areas of science and technology, there are many possible institutions, programs, and research groups. I can only advise that students facing this decision first consider their objectives, and then to look for institutions and people able to help them get there. In particular, universities must either offer a degree program that fits, or provide the flexibility to make one. I found a home in MIT’s Interdisciplinary Science Program (which I can’t recommend, because it no longer exists).
In undergraduate studies, the general breadth, orientation, and quality of a school is more important than any focused undergraduate program that it is likely to have.
Early involvement in research of almost any kind has a special value: It can provide knowledge of kinds that can’t be learned from reading, from classes, or even from lab courses. Pay special attention to research that studies atomically precise structures of significant size and complexity. If that research has an engineering component — designing and making things — so much the better.
By Eric Drexler

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