With the recent completion of a $53 million building dedicated to nanotechnology, the UCSB campus has become home to one of the leading institutions in the field. And as is the case with most campus research labs, new Gauchos will be presented with a wealth of opportunities because of it.
The California Nanosystems Institute, located on the northeast side of campus by the entrance to Highway 217, marks a joint collaboration with UCLA in pioneering research in nanotechnology – the science of molecules on the one billionth of a meter scale. To put this size into perspective, a DNA molecule is two nanometers wide and a human hair is about 70,000 nm thick, so saying that the nanoscale is small is quite the understatement.
Through CNSI, UCSB faculty and student researchers from every scientific discipline are manipulating molecules to form complex structures that will revolutionize technology and the world. UCSB is paving the way toward developing cell phones and computers that never run out of battery power, smaller and more efficient solar cells, better methods of treating cancer and more efficient lighting methods.
“[With these technologies,] we would not only save energy,” said CNSI Co-Director Evelyn Hu. “We can send them all over the world … It would have a big impact on providing real resources to the world in an effective way.”
Although UCSB has an entire building dedicated to the nanosciences, no undergraduate – or even graduate – degree in nanotechnology exists. According to CNSI Educational Co-Director Liu-yen Kramer, the only place for a student to start work in nanosystems research is through the Materials Research Laboratory’s Research Internships in Science and Engineering program.
The RISE program offers eight to 10 student internships per quarter, as well as 20 during the summer, so students can get involved in research at any time of the year.
“You can jump in at any time; there’s no restrictions when you apply,” Kramer said.
According to Hu, nanotechnology is not just about the small scale, but about putting the sciences together in entirely novel ways.
“It’s not only about the size, because lots of things are a billionth of a meter,” Hu said. “It offers a whole new set of possibilities.”
On the nanoscale, materials behave very differently on physical, biological and chemical levels than they do as individual atoms and molecules. For example, simply altering the size and shape of a semiconductor nanocrystal – also known as a quantum dot – can change its color, which reflects a change in its energy level. Just putting particles together in different ways can drastically affect a material’s scientific properties, even without changing the types of particles that are used.
“This [nanotube] is just one material – just carbon – and, depending on the structure, it can be a conductor, superconductor or metallic conductor. These structures are much more sophisticated than regular molecules,” Hu said. “They’re all small, but tremendously sophisticated.”
Second-year biochemistry major Peter Ramirez started researching during Spring Quarter of his freshman year and is now exploring the self-assembly of polymers, which are large chains of smaller molecules known as monomers, into nanostructures that could have vast applications for drug delivery and design.
As for his early start in research, Ramirez said he applied for an internship during his first year at UCSB through the Norris Foundation and began that spring. He has researched throughout the summer and said he plans to continue in the fall.
He said UCSB provided everything he needed for research and that students should not be wary of starting such work, even as freshmen.
“If you have time and it doesn’t get involved in your studies, you should take a shot at it,” Ramirez said.
Recently graduated Gaucho Liz Kelber, who just obtained her Bachelor of Science in biochemistry from UCSB, said students interested in research should talk with professors and get to know them.
“You’ve got to bug [professors],” Kelber said. “It’s all about who you know. If you don’t know anyone, they turn you away much easier than if they know you and your abilities.”
UCSB has a variety of programs that students of any year can apply to do research through, though the majority of student researchers are college juniors and seniors. Programs like RISE, the California Alliance Minority Participation and UC Leadership Excellence through Advanced Degrees all offer research internships that reward students with paychecks or units – on top of very valuable experience.
According to Hu, though, the best thing about researching at UCSB – whether in nanotechnology or any other science – is the spirit of convergence and sharing among scientists from every field.
“UCSB has made a practice of developing a collaborative spirit,” Hu said. “We have taken the time to develop large shared resources and open them up for everyone to use. … Convergence at every level says it all.”