Starting Small

Nanotechnology is hot. Researchers are flocking to it. Publication rates are skyrocketing. Money is flowing into the field from governments and companies alike.

But what exactly is that money flowing into? Perhaps the hardest problem in nanotechnology is figuring out what it is. Unlike conventional disciplines, such as synthetic chemistry and biophysics, it’s not obvious what it means to be a nanoscientist. That, of course, makes it hard to know how to train for and find a topflight nanoscience job. Still, there are some basics on which most knowledgeable people agree.

What is nanotech exactly?

Those fields, of course, are not new, so what makes nanoscience an emerging area? What makes nanoscience new, says Mihail Roco, who heads the United States’ National Nanotechnology Initiative, is that nanoscientists today have the ability to not only influence matter at the nanoscale but also control its every aspect, such as size and shape, as well as chemical, optical, and mechanical properties.

Behind the numbers

That control is making nanoscience a big enterprise. Including corporate, federal, and state initiatives, the United States is spending some $3 billion a year on nanoscience and technology research and development. Last year, Lux Research, a market research firm based in New York City, put the worldwide investment in nano by governments, companies, and venture capitalists at $12.4 billion. A database maintained by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies lists more than 500 current products that incorporate nanotech. Lux estimates that the market for those products is about $32 billion a year. The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) claims this market will balloon to more than $1 trillion within 5 years and employ some 2 million people worldwide.

With the tens of billions of dollars being spent and a market forecast in 13 digits, it’s safe to say that planning a career in the nanosciences will be as easy as shooting fish in a barrel, right?

Not if you trust most experts. Market forecasts are just that, some business leaders remind us. And digging beneath some of the biggest numbers may make you think twice anyway. Take NSF’s projections of a $1 trillion industry and the need for a 2-million-strong work force: That $1 trillion figure includes the worth of entire products of which nano might be just a small part. Instead of counting just the couple of dollars’ worth of carbon nanotubes in a car’s bumper, it includes the value of the whole car.

Is the nano work force too small?

On the human resources side, the projected jobs include manufacturing workers who merely add some nanomaterials into whatever widget they are making. These jobs may incorporate nanotechnologies, but they’re not really nanotech jobs, and they’re certainly not science jobs. According to Lux’s estimates, nanotechnology companies today employ about 5300 scientists and engineers, a number expected to grow to about 30,000 over the next 2 years. There are likely thousands more such “white coat” jobs out there in academia and government research labs. At the time of Lux’s survey last year, about 60% of nanotech companies said that they felt there was a shortage of nanotech talent, says Lux’s director of research, Mark Bünger. Bünger notes that the situation isn’t unlike that of other fields early in their development, where jobs in early-stage companies tend to go to scientists and engineers looking to develop a commercial product. As fields mature, those jobs shift first to a greater percentage of engineers and then to marketing, sales, and other business types. As a result, Bünger doubts that a serious shortage of scientists and engineers at nanotechnology companies is likely.

“The nanotechnology field is still pretty small,” says Ken Smith, a physicist and co-founder of Carbon Nanotechnologies Inc., now a subsidiary of Unidym in Menlo Park, California. “It’s an early enterprise with a lot of excitement and a lot of risk.” It’s also a highly interdisciplinary field that can require expertise in everything from chemistry and materials science to, in some cases, electrical engineering, optics, and biology.

The best training

Today, some 20 universities worldwide offer multidisciplinary nanotechnology advanced degrees in addition to conventional degree programs, such as chemistry and physics. Although it might seem obvious that such multidisciplinary training would improve your odds of getting a job in a multidisciplinary field, business executives are split about whether they prefer applicants with nanotech degrees, according to Lux’s survey and other sources. When it comes to the multidisciplinary degree programs, “the benefit that companies get are people who have been exposed to many areas,” Bünger says. One executive who agrees with that is Viktor Vejins, president and chief executive officer of Nano-C, a start-up in Westwood, Massachusetts, that produces fullerenes. “The broadening of the academic scope is a good thing,” Vejins says. Most importantly, it shows that students can think outside of a single disciplinary box, something that’s especially valued in small start-up companies that often call on scientists to be jacks-of-all-trades.

But “there’s a limit to the time you have in graduate school,” Smith says. “It’s important to develop the capabilities to do thorough, groundbreaking research in a given area. It’s difficult to do that in an interdisciplinary program.” Robert Langer, a biomaterials expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, who has started several companies of his own, agrees. “I believe what you want is coursework that teaches you very good fundamentals in one area in depth,” Langer says. Then, he adds, it’s important to find a thesis project that exposes you to a broader range of people and disciplines.

The key, say Smith, Langer, and others, is having enough depth in one area to make you valuable to a company. Russell Gaudiana, vice president for research at Konarka, a plastic solar-cell maker in Lowell, Massachusetts, notes that when his company is hiring new talent, they typically have a specific need to fill, such as a polymer chemist. Even when companies have interdisciplinary challenges, they tend to bring together specialists in several different areas instead of hiring a jack-of-all-trades.

A solid foundation makes you flexible

Beyond this debate, virtually all executives emphasize the need for scientists who are creative, good communicators, and adept at solving problems. Business is about problem solving, says Vejins, so young scientists and engineers can help themselves by demonstrating flexibility in the kinds of projects they work on successfully and the ability to communicate well to ensure that the work gets done. “The basic set of science and engineering skills need to be there,” Vejins says. “With that foundation, we are expecting someone to be able to go down a multitude of different paths.”

Keep in mind, too, that there are things you can do to ensure that a company is a good fit for you. Vejins, who used to work for Cabot Corp., a large chemical company, notes that large companies can be ideal for researchers who are interested primarily in one subfield or who are looking for extra job stability. Small companies often offer less stability but more varied challenges. Another thing to look for is how strong a prospective company’s nanotechnology prospects might be. Langer says that when he’s thinking about starting a company, he always determines whether he and his colleagues have written a seminal paper in the area, secured the intellectual property around it, and developed a technology platform that can be used to create a variety of products. Scientists looking for jobs might be served well by asking company executives whether they have all those assets lined up, because they could give the company–and all of its employees–a better chance of success.

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