Dr. Bhatia's Commentary for National Nanotechnology Day Featured by the National Academy of Sciences

From the National Academy of Sciences, 10/9/2017.

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October 9 is #NationalNanoDay, a time to reflect on how tiny technologies have become an integral part of our daily lives. Just a few decades ago, the wonders of the nanoscale were still a mere speculation, and even made for several good science fiction flicks (“Fantastic Voyage” anyone?). Now, in the space where we used to house a single transistor, we can fit a billion, making electronic devices such as smart phones almost as powerful as some desktop computers. Some of the most advanced electronic features being manufactured today are smaller than a biological virus. And more recently, researchers at the Berkeley Labsuccessfully engineered a transistor gate that was just one nanometer-long (for reference, a strand of human hair is about 50,000 nanometers thick). Just imagine the level of precision required for crafting these advanced materials, as well as the years of dedicated research that was required to get us there!

National Nano Day also reminds us that the concept of scale is not just about manipulating matter; it is also about our ability to ‘see the unseen' and to measure the wonders of nature using novel characterization tools. We have indeed come a long way since IBM's first demonstrations of scanning tunneling microscopy in the early ‘80s with the emergence of high-resolution characterization tools such as electron microscopy. With these new capabilities, we have discovered how the properties of bulk materials (for example, optical behavior) can change quite dramatically when reduced to the nanoscale, thus enabling new, exciting applications. Using super-resolved fluorescence microscopy, you can now visualize how a single cell functions at a much higher spatial resolution than ever before. These advances have shed a spotlight on the inner workings of human physiology and highlight how we, human beings, are also a harmonious collection of nanoscale technologies.

As a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), part of my research has focused on engineering non-invasive methods of detecting cancer. Our idea was to use nanotechnology to miniaturize cancer detectors to the point that they are so small that they can be given in a shot as an injectable sensor. Nanosensors that can circulate in your body, find the tumor all by themselves, and send a signal to the outside world. Those signals can be read out with minimal infrastructure; for example, a paper strip urine test. Our hope is that our #cancerdetector meets a future where treatment options have also transformed. Maybe it is better surgical treatment, maybe it is more targeted medicines, maybe it is turning the immune system on cancer. At MIT, I run a Cancer Nanomedicine Center that is fueling this kind of invention explosion in #oncology using tiny technologies.

National Nano Day is a celebration of how far we have come along in crafting, manipulating, and measuring “the unseen.” #Nanoscience draws simultaneously on various fields including the engineering and medical sciences, and it empowers researchers to push the frontiers of interdisciplinary research even further. Most importantly, the impact of nanotechnology is fueled by diverse talent. When late Institute Professor Emerita Mildred Dresselhaus was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014 for her pioneering work with carbon materials, former President Obama described how “her influence is all around us, in the cars we drive, the energy we generate, the electronic devices that power our lives.” Her longstanding commitment to promote diversity in the engineering sciences is equally felt to this day, and continues to inspire us all in pursuing broader gender inclusion in nanoscience and related fields.

You can learn more about the wonders of the nanoscale at the following links: