Ask a nanotechnologist!

On Wednesday, April 11th I went to CosmoCaixa to participate in the initiative “Ask a nanotechnologist” organized by the Catalan Society of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (SCN²) included within the activities of the “10alamenos9” festival. They invited me over as a graduated nanotechnologist who has chosen to follow a different path from the academic one: in my case, science communication. There I got to meet again with my degree classmates who also came to the activity representing different career paths.

The idea of bringing “Nanos” who had chosen different paths served to give advice from different points of view to the secondary students who came as public. Surprisingly or not, the advises we end up giving to the kids converged. But before I give you a list of our advice, let me share some of the thoughts about nanotechnology that arose during the day:

Nanotechnology is already here! I was surprised at how some of the questions of the students suggested that is still decades away until the products from R+D nanotech will come to the market and the public. You just should take a look at the ingredients of your sunscreen cream or look up on the internet where to buy a hydrophobic t-shirt (it doesn’t get wet). Although it is true that, mostly in the health field, the testing and legislation the products need to overcome in order to get to the market can take up to 10 or 20 years, the research in nanoscience exists since the 1980s, so do the math! The products are already arriving.

One of the questions Guillem Domènech, our interviewer, made us is which nanotechnology application had surprised us the most. I couldn’t give a specific answer, but I think the nanoscience applications in the biomedicine world will be a revolution (in fact, they are already!). Designing nanoparticles that adapt to the patients’ needs and particularities (personalized medicine), in order for them to go and act over a specific spot of the body, treating different pathologies without affecting the rest of the cells: for example, with controlled drug release or using its unique physic-chemical properties to kill cancer cells, among other options.

Additionally, it is relevant to mention (and this has come out at the majority of the interviews) that it does not exists any specific legislation related to the treatment of nanotechnology residues, simply because never before it was needed to deal with it. We don’t know which effects could have nanoparticles over the environment and, for this reason, it is important to research about it parallel to the development of this (not so new) technology, so the right measures can be taken. This doesn’t mean we must fear the new or the unknown, we just must study it with bigger determination to take advantage of it.

Finally, I’m going to allow myself the freedom to write down a list of the pieces of advice or affirmations which I think were the most repeated ones during the day:

  1.    Nanotechnology is a transversal and multidisciplinary science which addresses physics, chemistry, biology, and electronics. If you like science in general, but can’t choose a specific field, nanoscience will probably be a good option for you. This was my case and I believe the case of most of my classmates.
  2. You don’t have to know what do you want to do or what do you like already. We all agreed at the interviews about this point. In life in general, and in the academic career specifically, you will come across moments of doubt when it comes to deciding on your next step. Never feel guilty if you find out that you don’t like something, you already will have made a lot of progress! Keep trying and learning new things until finding out whatever makes you feel passionate, both when it comes to internships and studies.
  3. The relevance of networking. That word everyone talks about means: make contacts. Talk, ask, move, meet new people and be persistent on your goals. This will probably open more doors up for your professional future than having the best grades in your class. (This does not mean that you don’t make a little effort, more than 5 or 6 years at the university will feel so long, pass!)
  4.    Finally, and going back to the Nanoscience and Nanotechnology bachelor’s degree: We, the “Nanos”, may not know a lot about nothing, but we know a little bit of everything. We can work as bridges, in a lab or a company, between physicists, chemists, biologists, and engineers, because we know the basics of each of these disciplines. Which, at the same time, lets us get adapted to a great diversity of scientific environments and specialize along the way.

I hope this brief introduction to the nanometric world has been a useful guide if you are stuck at the indecisive moment of choosing a bachelor’s degree.

Some abandoned the first year (an action that takes great courage, if you ask me). But the ones we have stayed may suffer from Stockholm Syndrome of some kind since, despite the hard times of doubts and complains we lived during this degree, I would confirm that none of us regrets to have acquired the knowledge we now have, nor have lived the experience.

Sarah Moreira

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Author and translator: Sarah Moreira.

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