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Collaboration, new hires needed

Integrated Nanostructured Systems group releases white paper report

Published: October 27, 2005

Contributing Editor

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Collaboration among scientists, the free exchange of information, key new faculty hires in specific disciplines and a formal administrative infrastructure dedicated to facilitating such collaborations and exchanges are the minimum, essential ingredients necessary to leverage UB's proposed strategic strength in Integrated Nanostructured Systems.


These are some of the conclusions of a white paper prepared by the planning committee focusing on the area of Integrated Nanostructured Systems, one of 10 strategic strengths identified in the UB 2020 strategic planning process.

The report was sent and presented to the UB 2020 Academic Planning Committee and the deans in June and mid-July, respectively.

Nanostructured systems are those that use components whose dimensions are on the nanoscale, in the range of a billionth of a meter, a scale at which materials show quantum effects that result in novel properties, allowing for the development of incredibly beneficial new functions and products.

The report provides a detailed look at UB's existing multidisciplinary successes in nanomaterials while specifying the steps needed over the next 15 years to advance UB to a position of distinction in this discipline.

According to Alexander N. Cartwright, professor of electrical engineering and the chair of the white paper group, the goal of Integrated Nanostructured Systems is to enable teams of researchers to "address complex problems that cannot be addressed by individual investigators working on their own."

Initially, researchers will focus on problems that can best be solved by small teams and on securing research grants with two to three investigators, which in turn will function as the bases for larger, multi-investigator grants.

As the engineering and scientific base of knowledge is increased through these seminal research efforts, the team will be expanded, more complex problems will be engaged and larger, more sophisticated grant applications will be written, designed to address these more complex problems.

As an example of a successful effort, the paper describes how chemists, engineers and physicists in the late 1990s collaborated on a major proposal to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA) to conduct research in spintronics, spin-dependent phenomena in semiconductors.

Connections were made with peers at other institutions through a conference convened by what was then UB's Center for Advanced Photonic and Electronic Materials (CAPEM) and which is now the Center for Spin Effects and Quantum Information in Nanostructures (CSEQuIN).

At this symposium, the UB group networked with groups from the University of Notre Dame, the Naval Research Laboratory and the University of Wuerzburg (Germany); later, additional investigators were attracted through a "teaming" workshop organized by DARPA.

This effort and months of focused writing, editing and reviewing of scientific facts resulted in the funding in late 2000 of the $7 million proposal, with UB being named the lead institution.

That grant not only allowed UB researchers to develop key knowledge and expertise in spintronics, but it also attracted new faculty in these areas.

The white paper gives additional examples of how teams of UB investigators created winning grant proposals from the Defense University Research Initiative in Nanotechnology (DURINT) and the National Science Foundation's Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT). A key piece of each effort was nanoscale engineering and science.

The Integrated Nanostructured Systems white paper also reveals that over the past five years, coordinated hiring among the departments of Chemistry, Electrical Engineering and Physics has been successfully established.

"This avoids overlap in hiring between departments, ensures that new hires are complementary with existing researchers and best uses our finite resources," Cartwright explained.

"At the same time, it provides new faculty with a connection to a multidisciplinary group of people in their field and ensures a good 'fit'," he said. "It provides them with an environment for success."

The paper notes that many faculty members hired in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering have research interests in the nano-bio area, as do two of five recent hires in pharmaceutical sciences.

UB's existing expertise in nanoscale engineering and science covers a range, from fundamental theory and computer modeling to synthesis and purification of novel nanoscale objects, the selective interconnection of these nano-objects into higher order architectures and assemblies to the creation of complex devices and systems and the translation of these devices into the clinical setting.

The broad research areas targeted by the Integrated Nanostructured Systems strategic strength include inorganic and organic materials and structures, biological and soft materials, and new enabling tools.

Within inorganic materials and structures, members will pursue research on:

  • Tunable nanomaterial building blocks based on high-purity quantum dots, nanorods, nanowires and thin films.

  • Novel photonic band gap materials.

  • Power management and utilization subsystems.

  • Robust assembly methods for controlled placement and interconnection of the nanoscopic building blocks.

  • Other novel devices based on these nanoscopic architectures.

Such devices will have engineering applications in nanoelectronics and implants, medical applications in unobtrusive sensors and devices, and experimental science applications as interconnects between other systems, such as biomolecules and bioinspired subsystems.

Spin in nanostructures is another subfield of interest, with UB researchers focusing on the interplay among spin, magnetism and the electronic and optical properties of ferromagnetic and non-magnetic semiconductor nanostructures for novel, spin-based devices for future generations of information technology. Also under this heading, research will focus on hybrid nanoparticle-organic composite materials.

Under biological and soft materials and properties, research will include:

  • Identification of novel, natural materials as platforms for fabrication of higher-order architectures.

  • Natural and synthetic polymer-based constructs as delivery vehicles and tunable interconnects.

  • Hybrid laminates and multi-layered structures for wound repair across organ systems.

  • Sensors for assessing human physiology, human odor typing, biometric identification and toxin detection.

  • Novel, molecularly tailored materials for controlled drug delivery.

  • The research initiatives described above will require the use and development of instrumentation for creating and manipulating objects at the nanoscale, studying pure nano-objects theoretically and experimentally, and exploiting nano-scale objects to construct new devices and instruments.

The white paper points out that one of UB's "unique features" is its extensive characterization capabilities and expertise within the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.

In addition, the paper notes that UB faculty have been active in developing novel instruments for characterization at the nanoscale. The computer simulation and modeling capabilities of the Center for Computational Research also were cited as a strength.

Targeted applications of Integrated Nanostructured Systems research fall into two main subject areas:

  • Information technologies, including quantum computing, quantum cryptography, optical communications, quantum dot ferromagnetic memories and spintronic devices, as well as solar-cell technologies, inorganic/organic light-emitting devices and ultra-sensitive photonic and electronic sensors.

  • Biomedical applications, including carrier/delivery technologies such as drugs, genes, therapeutic proteins, antigenic proteins (vaccines), nanomachines and nanostructures, tissue engineering/reconstruction/healing and imaging/sensing.

A third avenue that Integrated Nanostructured Systems researchers will pursue is the social and environmental impacts of research involved in "miniaturization," including environmental and medical/biological ethics, environmental monitoring sensors, natural nanostructures in the environment and the impact of engineered bioparticles and nanostructures in the environment. The paper notes that such activities will enhance UB's competitiveness in these areas, all of which are supported under the National Nanotechnology Initiative.

Educational efforts will include concerted cross-listing of courses in integrated nanostructured systems, which will be developed by an Integrated Nanostructured Systems task force for education.

Faculty also will have the opportunity to be retrained and "cross-educated" through short courses held at UB.

Integrated Nanostructured Systems researchers also will have opportunities to interact with colleagues in other centers and strategic strength areas, particularly in Information and Computing Technology and Molecular Recognition in Biological Systems, with additional synergies with faculty in the Clinical Sciences and Experimental Medicine, and Aging and Chronic Diseases strategic strengths.

A guiding team of five to eight recognized faculty leaders in integrated nanostructured systems will be established. Team members will be chosen based on their expertise, publication record, major research awards and funding track record.

This guiding team will be responsible for building a network for information exchange and collaboration, and providing a foundation for a comprehensive research community in integrated nanostructured systems.

Cartwright said that the process of fully exploring UB's strengths in integrated nanostructured systems already has demonstrated the breadth and depth of expertise here.

"There are significant efforts at UB in the incorporation of nanostructures in the biomedical area, some of which were less well-known to some members of the white paper team," he said. "There clearly are excellent researchers at the medical and dental schools, the school of pharmacy, and Roswell Park who are working, for example, on biological and soft materials at the nanoscale and who should definitely be interacting with the materials people on the North Campus. This is an outcome that needs to be expanded on."

The white paper sets an ambitious timeline.

In the first year, Integrated Nanostructured Systems will complete an inventory of existing UB expertise and facilities, and expand existing multidisciplinary efforts in spintronics, sensor-based devices, devices for wound repair and therapeutics. Seed funds will be targeted toward "important transdisciplinary problems," the results of which will serve as the basis of the two-to-three-investigator NSF and NIH grants.

By year three, the paper states, the team hopes to have secured several major multidisciplinary grants from NSF and NIH, have completed additional hires for this strategic strength and be conducting a roll-out of related devices from UB labs. In year three, larger-scale, multidisciplinary team grant opportunities also will be targeted more frequently and it is expected that the appropriate resources will be in place so that teams can be put together rapidly for such grants.

Nanoinstrumentation and spin-based devices will be the major push by year five. Members of Integrated Nanostructured Systems will be transcending their formal disciplines in their individual research. Along with increased funding and improved student and researcher training, disciplinary barriers will continue to be overcome, allowing members to focus on solving key research questions. Integrated Nanostructured Systems-based startup companies will begin to emerge.

By year 10, products emerging from UB labs will include implantable sensors, solid-state lighting, spin-based devices, quantum computing platforms for wound repair and restitution, tissue engineering and drug delivery and therapeutics. New transdisciplinary degree programs such as molecular diagnostics and molecular systems integration will be introduced.

Through these efforts, it is expected that UB will become a world-class center in translational research based on nanoscale materials. The paper states: "Developed at UB, theoretical tools will expand to the point where a 'user' can outline the desired material/device features and a series of target nano-objects and assemblies proposed. These proposed objects can then be rapidly synthesized, purified, assembled and tested in vitro and in vivo."

Such efforts, the white paper states, will require a major university commitment, including new faculty hiring.

Impediments to the goals of Integrated Nanostructured Systems listed in the white paper include:

  • Lack of key faculty in topical research areas that can readily link researchers from diverse disciplines (e.g. chemistry to biomedicine, physics to dentistry, engineering to surgery).

  • Lack of professional staff who can provide "consistent boilerplating" necessary to the production of successful grant proposals, and which should not be the responsibility of faculty.

  • Insufficient support staff in clerical, equipment and facilities areas; lack of centrally located diverse intramural support.

  • Inadequate incentives for mid- and later-career researchers.

In addition to Cartwright, the full white paper committee for Integrated Nanostructured Systems consists of Paschalis Alexandridis, professor of chemical and biological engineering; Richelle Allen-King, associate professor of geology; Frank Bright, UB Distinguished Professor of Chemistry; Wesley Hicks, professor of otolaryngology and attending surgeon at Roswell Park Cancer Institute; Bruce D. McCombe, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Physics, vice provost for graduate education and dean of the Graduate School; Robert Straubinger, associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences; and Balusubramanian Sathyamangalam, assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences.