The U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) recently featured Northwestern’s Chad Mirkin on a podcast discussing key advances in nanotechnology, the importance of working across disciplines and the exceptional promise of the field for young researchers.
The podcast was the last in a yearlong series celebrating the 15-year anniversary of the initiative, which was established to speed nanotechnology research and development in the United States. The series included the perspectives of 40 experts from academia, government and industry.
Mirkin spoke of how he got involved in nanotechnology and was in the “right place, at the right time” with the nanotechnology revolution when he started his independent career at Northwestern in 1991. Scientists were beginning to have the tools to study materials on the sub-100 nanometer length scale where any material takes on new properties.
“This was going to be a really spectacular way of doing science and a way of rapidly making advances in many fields, following a general tenet that everything miniaturized is different,” said Mirkin, a world-renowned chemist, nanoscience expert and entrepreneur.
Northwestern established the International Institute for Nanotechnology (IIN) in 2000, with Mirkin as the director. The institute was intentionally created to span the University, focused on both science and technological output, involving not just chemists, but also physicists, biologists, engineers, business experts and physicians — anyone interested in studying the consequences of miniaturization.
“New materials and new techniques drive the field,” said Mirkin, the George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “We thought it was very important to become world-class in terms of the facilities and the instrumentation and that would ultimately create a magnet to draw much of the talent in the world to Northwestern, and that turns to have paid off.
“A great example of that, of course, was moving Fraser Stoddart from UCLA to Northwestern,” Mirkin said. “He wins a Nobel Prize for much of his work related to nanotechnology. But he’s just one example. Others include Milan Mrksich, Nathan Gianneschi, Will Dichtel, John Rogers and Teri Odom. We’ve had so many great people come and join us at the institute. … When you get those types of people to come and join you, you get the best students and postdocs who want to do research in this field.”
Nanotechnology already has produced many successful applications, including nanoelectronics, technologies for cleaner water, diagnostic tools in medicine and new therapeutics, Mirkin said. His own discoveries range from the world’s smallest pen (1999) to one of the world’s largest 3D printers (2019), and there are more than 2,000 commercial products linked to advances within the IIN.
At the podcast’s conclusion, Mirkin emphasized that nanotechnology is a land of tremendous opportunity for undergraduate students. Students at Northwestern learn how to do science properly — break down a problem, solve a problem — and they are trained to find complementary expertise and think about what any new information, structure or material allows them to do.
“This way of doing science, engineering and medicine under the nanotechnology umbrella is an incredible training ground and one that prepares young people to pursue careers that I think will be very rewarding for them, regardless of their sub-discipline of interest,” Mirkin said.