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(L-R) Dong Cai, Thomas Chiles and Michael Naughton are among the faculty members involved in an integrated science initiative. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

New Course on Nanotech is Showcase for Integrated Science

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By Ed Hayward | Chronicle Staff
Published: March 4, 2010
A new seminar on nanotechnology taught by a team of professors from the Biology, Chemistry and Physics departments marks the first integrated science course offered in the University's strategic push to link research and teaching across the disciplines.

The course, Nanoscale Integrated Science, brings together faculty developing devices built at the nanoscale -- one-billionth of a meter, or 100,000 times smaller than the width of the average human hair. Each week, professors lecture to a capacity crowd of slightly more than 40 graduate and upper-level undergraduate students.

Department chairs involved in the development of the course say it is the result of a sustained investment in faculty and facilities over the past decade that has both refined the expertise within the departments and moved them all closer to a model of integrated research and teaching.

"We couldn't offer this course three years ago because we didn't have integrated sciences -- we didn't have faculty whose work was truly meshed together," said Biology Department chairman Professor Thomas Chiles. "Now these visions are coming together and it's pretty exciting."

Designed as a departure from core and elective courses in the specific majors, the seminar is taught by a revolving roster of faculty who volunteered to take on the project beyond their normal teaching loads.

Lecturers include Chiles, Physics chairman Ferris Professor Michael Naughton, Physics professors Baldassare Di Bartolo, Kris Kempa and Zhifeng Ren, Associate Professor of Physics Willie Padilla, Assistant Professor of Chemistry Dunwei Wang, Gregory McMahon and Stephen Shepard, who supervise the University's Nanofabrication Clean Room on the Newton Campus, and Research Associate Professor of Biology Dong Cai, who co-organized the line-up.

"I think of it as jumping up and looking at the science from a higher place," said Cai, a researcher in Chiles' lab. "You see a larger picture, but an integrated picture. I think that is the meaning of this course."

Naughton says the course gives students a chance to learn from technologies under development in BC labs right now.

Naughton says this is the first of a range of integrated science courses at the University, where the strategic and master plans call for the construction of an integrated science center.

"This is what's going on in the world," said Naughton. "There's both a strong need and room to add these topical, flavorful and essential courses at the graduate and undergraduate level. Particularly for undergraduates, because it gives them an idea of all the forces at play in the world of science they may one day work in -- not only pure research, but everyday applications, commercialization, as well as implications for policy, regulation and business development."

BC's commitment to integrated science stretches well beyond a single course.

Chiles, together with principal investigators Naughton and Cai, recently received an $800,000 grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to develop a nanoscale sensor capable of detecting molecules that could signal the onset of ovarian cancer sooner than traditional diagnostic technologies, Chiles said.

Chiles said the development of the bio-sensor would have taken far longer without the University's two-year-old clean room, a state-of-the-art facility that gives BC researchers the ability to engineer nanotech devices.

"Having our own facility like the clean room affords the flexibility that is so critical to discovery," said Chiles. "Once you have that, you have the publications and the grants that follow. And you have an environment for the BC student that isn't always available at other universities."