AMHERST, Mass. – The University of Massachusetts Amherst has received a five-year, $3.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to train experts in making tiny devices using nanotechnology.
The NSF’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) Program in Nanotechnology Innovation will enable science and engineering graduate students to earn a Ph.D. emphasis in nanotechnology while receiving practical experience in developing new technologies for possible commercial applications. Charlena M. Seymour, provost and senior vice chancellor for academic affairs, announced the grant.
While UMass has trained young scientists and engineers in nanoscale techniques for many years, the new program will connect courses and seminars, research, internships and advising across six science and engineering departments to give students an interdisciplinary background in nanotechnology in addition to a doctoral degree from their home discipline.
A unique aspect of the program will be team-training of students on 18-month Technical Challenge Projects in a partnership with the university’s Isenberg School of Management. The aim of these group projects is to generate prototypes of real nanoscale devices along with plans for product development and commercialization of the technology, under the tutelage of advisors from both academia and industry.
Nanotechnology—the engineering of matter and devices on the scale of nanometers (one nanometer is about one-millionth the width of the head of a pin)—is an important emerging field of technology, often dubbed “the next industrial revolution.” Such super-small materials and devices can provide the means for ultra-compact data storage and faster computing, more effective drug delivery, more efficient solar energy conversion, and stronger and tougher manufacturing materials. Massachusetts is ranked first in state economic competitiveness in nanotechnology, according to data from Lux Research, Inc., making highly skilled scientists and engineers in great demand in the Bay State.
UMass Amherst has gained a national reputation for nanotechnology research, earning $27 million in grants since 1997 and ranking among the top 10 universities nationally for nanoscience grants from the National Science Foundation in 2001-03. “This program is one part of a larger effort at UMass to link fundamental advances in nanotechnology to commercial applications with economic and societal benefit,” says James J. Watkins, co-director of the new program. “We’ll be combining this new doctoral emphasis in nanotechnology with an already strong campus-wide research effort involving over 40 nanotechnology researchers, a growing network of industrial relationships, and UMass Amherst’s outstanding laboratory facilities for nanoscience.”
Mark Tuominen, also a co-director of the UMass program, points out that the students selected for IGERT Fellowships will benefit from a rich array of resources and experiences not available elsewhere. “Our conversations with industry leaders have convinced us that a strong scientific education alone is not sufficient to make headway in a rapidly developing field like nanotechnology,” Tuominen says. “We’re purposefully pushing this program toward technology applications and asking the students to understand the business angles behind getting new technologies to market, so their value to society will be all the greater.”
In addition to Watkins and Tuominen, other UMass faculty co-investigators are Thomas Russell, Vincent Rotello and Seshu Desu. UMass will work as partners with Lucent Technologies’ Bell Laboratories for use of specialized industrial fabrication facilities, and with Cambridge-based TIAX (the former Technology & Innovation business of Arthur D. Little, Inc.) for help in mentoring students on technology development. Students selected for participation in the program will receive fellowships averaging $30,000 for two years during their doctoral training experience, and will enroll in degree programs in UMass departments such as chemistry, chemical engineering, electrical and computer engineering, mechanical and industrial engineering, physics, and polymer science and engineering.
The new program at UMass Amherst is one of about two dozen graduate science and engineering programs being awarded from more than 550 proposals received this year under the IGERT program. Watkins and Tuominen credit support from the UMass system through its Science and Technology Initiatives grant program for laying the groundwork for their successful IGERT proposal.
IGERT is an NSF-wide program intended to meet the challenges of educating U.S. Ph.D. scientists and engineers with the interdisciplinary background, deep knowledge in a chosen discipline, and the technical, professional, and personal skills needed for the career demands of the future. The program is intended to catalyze a cultural change in graduate education by establishing innovative new models for graduate education and training in a fertile environment for collaborative research that transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries. Awards are made to institutions for programs that collectively span the areas of science and engineering supported by NSF.