This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Faculty envision nanomaterials’ future

Published: March 24, 2005

Contributing Editor

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Faculty researchers in the sciences, engineering and biomedical science grappled with the question of how to best develop UB as a leader in nanomaterials during the first UB 2020 "envisioning retreat" held on March 7.


Nanomaterials, one of 10 strategic strengths for UB identified last semester by the UB 2020 Academic Planning Committee, generally are defined as materials measuring in the range of a billionth of a meter.

The standing-room-only crowd at the five-hour retreat held in 12 Capen Hall included approximately 75 chemists, physicists, chemical and biological engineers, electrical engineers, biophysicists, materials and biomedical scientists, all of whom conduct some aspect of their research at the nanoscale.

The task facing faculty working in each of the 10 strategic-strength areas will be to select the academic and scholarly foci that will best distinguish UB for that strategic strength. Each group then will produce a white paper addressing those themes.

Participants were encouraged to think of themselves as "futurists," to explore UB's unique elements in nanomaterials, the resources that already exist and the resources that will be needed to build on those elements.

Satish K. Tripathi, UB provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, told the researchers that faculty input in the UB 2020 strategic planning process is essential.

"This is not a case where a master plan has been formulated," he said. "You are being involved from the beginning."

Tripathi advised those gathered not to think about forming a new "center for nanomaterials research."

"Centers are not the only way to achieve strategic strength," he noted, adding,"we have 142 already."

The meeting began with a series of presentations by selected researchers who gave synopses of their work.

Faculty members then were divided into groups, each charged with coming up with strategies for best realizing UB's potential in nanomaterials.

Mention was made of physicist Richard Feynman's now famous 1959 talk entitled "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," generally believed to be the inspiration for the field; some faculty noted that Feynman's talk was given several years before they were born, underscoring just how prescient was that intuition.

But in 2005, the faculty noted, with much of the promise of nanomaterials still unrealized, deciding which areas under that heading likely will be "hot" in the next few years—and where UB already has significant strengths—presents a major challenge.

Some professors questioned the wisdom of selecting strategic strengths at all.

"Hire the smartest young people and hire them no matter what they do," said Fred Sachs, professor of physiology and biophysics, noting that strategic strengths will develop naturally based on the talents of faculty members who are hired.

Others said they were energized by the chance to influence the university's direction.

"I think this is the most interesting opportunity I've seen in 10 years in Buffalo," said Huw Davies, UB Distinguished Professor in the Department of Chemistry, who also serves on the UB 2020 Academic Planning Committee.

Faculty discussed the university's prominence in research on electronics, optics and magnetic structures.

While the university was said to have a growing strength in synthesis, testing was identified as an existing and powerful strength.

"A lot of folks send their samples here to be measured," said Frank Bright, UB Distinguished Professor in the Department of Chemistry. "That's a barometer."

Enabling tools, such as new instrumentation for testing nanostructures, were included as an area of focus, while the interplay of nanomaterials with biology and biomedicine also was mentioned as an area of potential strength.

The presence of the medical school, together with UB's considerable resources in biological applications of nanomaterials, distinguishes the university from institutions pursuing similar strengths that lack a medical school, said Paschalis Alexandridis, professor of chemical and biological engineering,

Nanobiotechnology also was discussed as an area where UB can excel, as well as one that is a funding priority for federal agencies.

Some faculty members suggested that in order for UB's potential in the field to be realized, more incentives need to be developed to encourage faculty involvement with existing centers and collaboration with researchers outside of their disciplines, especially in order to submit major, interdisciplinary grant proposals.

"Most of the time you're not going to be successful, and so you're diverting efforts away from your own research," commented Bruce McCombe, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Physics and vice provost for graduate education.

Among the needs identified that could strengthen UB's profile in nanomaterials were:

  • Returning some fraction of indirect costs to the investigator who generated them to encourage "blue sky" research.

  • Superior clean-room facilities.

  • Preservation of the Center for Computational Research as a university-wide resource.

  • More emphasis on translational research, resulting in delivery of health care to patients.

  • Improved relationships between the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

  • A shared, interdisciplinary database of researchers' expertise so that faculty hiring throughout the university becomes more strategic.