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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Florida Polytechnic University > Interview with Dr. Chris Coughlin

Christopher Coughlin
Associate Professor of Nanotechnology and Multifunctional Materials
Florida Polytechnic University

Interview with Dr. Christopher S. Coughlin, associate professor of nanotechnology and multifunctional materials at Florida Polytechnic University, on the future of nanotechnology and nanotechnology education. Dr. Coughlin's work has crossed many boundaries, from polymer research to pharmaceutical regulatory affairs and from consumer product development to composites engineering.

January 25th, 2016

Interview with Dr. Chris Coughlin

Q: What are the opportunities you see in nanotechnology?

A: The field of nanotechnology is growing rapidly as a new frontier of science that promises disruptive change. There is such a wide array of applications for nanotechnology, ranging from drug delivery to nanoelectronics, and from consumer products to solar. There are also life-changing opportunities in nano-biomedicine, in which nanoparticles are being used for targeted drug and therapy delivery, and even being tested on cancer cells.

Q: What is the role of nanotechnology in a college's STEM education and how should students prepare for it?

A: Typically, nanotechnology is studied as a concentration in an engineering degree. Nanotechnology is one of the most popular concentrations in our mechanical and industrial engineering degree program. Before starting the study of nanotechnology, a foundational understanding of chemistry, biology and physics is a key pre-requisite. Early study should include getting familiar with characterization tools such as atomic force microscopy, X-ray diffraction and dynamic light scattering.

Q: What should students look for in a school that offers a nanotechnology degree?

A: As high school students start the decision process about what they want to study in college, it is important to realize that nanotechnology degrees aren't offered everywhere. The field is increasing in popularity, but nanotechnology isn't as common as other degrees, like computer or industrial engineering. As a result, students need to evaluate schools early on and weigh the pros and cons. There are certain common characteristics of the best nanotechnology schools which include: a focus on applied learning, access to cutting-edge technology and distinguished faculty with industry experience.

Q: Can you provide details on a nanotechnology project that your students are working on?

A: One of the experiments that our department is focusing on is improving efficiency of a solar cell. We are testing the use of nanoparticles with diatoms (shells of a single cell organism) to stack up the shells as glass-like objects to increase solar energy absorption.

Q: What are the opportunities for applied learning in nanotechnology?

A: I am passionate about science in general - and nanotechnology, in particular - so part of my role is to amplify that passion in the classroom and excite students. We bring out this excitement through student study which includes lab research on nanoparticles, as well as independent research projects that are often sponsored by professors - such as the sponsored project on solar cell efficiency I mentioned earlier. We also have lab research on nanoscale transistor applications.

Q: What are top career opportunities for a student concentrating in nanotechnology?

A: A common pathway I see is earning a nanotechnology degree and going into the developmental career trajectory working on engineering and production processes. Another common pathway is moving into research, such as biomedical research, which is a doctorate-level field. Accordingly, after graduation, many students will go into doctorate programs in departments such as materials science.

Q: What are unique challenges with nanotechnology?

A: As a new frontier, we don't yet know the environmental impact of nanotechnology. For example, one of the most common uses of nanotechnology to date is in consumer products. From Tupperware containers to cutting boards, to the fibers in socks - nanotechnology, and nanoparticles, are used in abundance as an antibacterial. But what happens if nanosilver particles are used in shaving cream as an antibacterial, and ultimately the particles are washed down the drain and accumulate in the wastewater treatment system? Will we change the balance of our environment as the antibacterial elements persist? One of the areas that I am most fascinated with is the focus on understanding how nanosilver particles are released and broken down. As leaders in science and engineering, it is our responsibility to understand the consequences of our work and make sure that we are not doing evil. That's why I teach a class on nanotechnology and the environment, so that students understand the responsibility to assess the potential environmental and exposure risks as part of their development.

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