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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > University of Idaho > Idaho's BANTech crosses discipline gaps

Ken Kingery
Science/Research Writer
University of Idaho

Abstract:
The initial buzz surrounding nanomaterials was their potential to for revolutionize technology. However, in the past few years there has been an explosion in the use of nanomaterials in biological applications. The logical solution to problems between material scientists and biological scientists is cohesive interdisciplinary research, where both sides of the scientific fence have training with nanomaterials, biological sciences and - most importantly - high-level communication skills across the disciplines. This is the premise behind the formation of the Biological Applications of Nanotechnology (BANTech) program at the University of Idaho.

January 26th, 2009

Idaho's BANTech crosses discipline gaps

"Can a computerized day planner manage your busy schedule from inside your pores?"

There has been a lot of hype - some of it real, some of it not - when it comes to the new science of nanotechnology. Though this example comes from a 2004 issue of the satirical newspaper, "The Onion," there have been many claims as to what mountainous challenges nanotechnology will scale.

The initial buzz surrounding nanomaterials was their potential to for revolutionize technology, like tiny transistor elements in microprocessors making them small enough to fit into one's pores. However, in the past few years there has been an explosion in the use of nanomaterials in biological applications.

To name just a few prime focus areas, researchers are experimenting with nanomaterials for drug delivery, genome analysis, and biodetection. While the results of preliminary studies have been promising, conflicting results also abound. For example, while one study finds silica nanoparticles to be nontoxic to in vitro prepared cells (e.g, test tubes), another study finds them to be toxic. This is to be expected in any burgeoning field, but in the long run these discrepancies need to be ferreted out and eliminated.

There are many possible explanations for these discrepancies including fundamental differences in the nanomaterials being used, handling of the nanomaterials, surface treatment of the nanomaterials, differences in cell lines, etc. However, unless the two types of researchers working on the biological applications - biological scientists and materials scientists - appreciate the subtle aspects of both fields, these apparent conflicts will not be easily resolved.

The logical solution to this problem is cohesive interdisciplinary research, where both sides of the scientific fence have training with nanomaterials, biological sciences and - most importantly - high-level communication skills across the disciplines.

This is the premise behind the formation of the Biological Applications of Nanotechnology (BANTech) program at the University of Idaho. The goal of the program is to develop an interdisciplinary program where materials scientists not only make the nanomaterials but work closely with biological scientists to develop and optimize properties for the given application. On the flip side, the biological scientists in BANTech don't simply take and use the materials, but guide the materials scientists toward the development of desired properties designed from the outset.

The learning curve can be quite steep for established researchers. BANTech recognizes that the next generation of scientists that will incorporate nanomaterials into biological sciences should be cross-trained in research as part of their education at the undergraduate and graduate levels. BANTech students are required to work in both nanomaterials and biological science laboratories. Only through direct participation in materials preparation and application can the students truly grasp the complexities and subtleties of the research in each field. In addition, BANTech offers courses in the emerging field of bionanoscience.

But the interdisciplinary nature of BANTech does not end there. Participants come from the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, College of Engineering, College of Science, and the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences. These students' research projects require a thorough understanding on the surface properties and chemical functionalization of nanomaterials, biochemistry, and especially biology.

With a firm grasp on these interdisciplinary topics, the students' wide variety of interests allow a similar scope of research in areas that include gene knockdown via nRNA delivery, drug delivery, induced cell division in embryonic development, nanospring-based biosensors and the potential toxicity of using nanoparticles and nanowires to achieve these ends.

Nobody knows exactly how nanomaterials will change the biological sciences. But one thing is certain; as BANTech continues to expand its scope of research and produce highly-trained graduates, the sky is the limit.

More information about BANTech can be found at http://www.ag.uidaho.edu/bantech/index.html .

This article was principally written by David McIlroy, Associate Professor of physics and head of the BANTech program at the University of Idaho.

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