It can be counterintuitive for the average person to understand how something one billionth of a meter in size could yield enormous benefits for society—more effective solar panels, energy harvested from heat, lighter airplanes, speedier computers, ultra-targeted drug therapies.
Yet all of these goals depend on nanotechnology, and the MIT researchers who are pursuing them must find effective ways to explain these tiny but mighty technologies to the public.
[Watch intriguing nanoscience lessons at the NanoNerds channel on YouTube.]
MIT students quickly learn that fluency when speaking about their research can be just as important as fluency in the lab. Deciphering nanoscale work for general audiences can lead to possible funding, investment, media coverage, and industry collaboration. And introducing younger audiences to the power of science is crucial to ensuring new generations of researchers will step forward to continue the exploration.
Fortunately, NISE (Nanoscale Informal Science Education), a network of universities and science museums, holds a series of workshops to help scientists and engineers do just that. Several MIT Research Communication Laboratory (RCL) students have participated in these workshops, including at Boston’s Museum of Science.
Students say they appreciate the opportunity to excite the general public over a little-understood topic. “The word ‘nano’ is broadly used. People just think of it as anything that’s small,” explains PhD student Sumit Dutta, a member of the RCL-affiliated Microsystems Technology Lab. He participated in the RCL’s recent Museum of Science internship week, which connected student researchers with museumgoers through hands-on demos and presentations. Dutta used a bare-bones circuit board to explain computer logic, which he’ll do again in April during the Museum’s upcoming NanoDays. This demo gave visitors a simple, up-close look at how computers work, the first step in communicating how nanotechnology could help to make our devices faster, smarter, and more energy efficient.
The experience has been gratifying both for him and for his audience. “For younger kids, even just playing with the switches on a circuit board is interesting,” he says. “There’s always an ‘aha’ moment when something clicks and kids realize, ‘This is so neat.’ It makes them want to study science and engineering down the line. As part of my computer logic demo, I feel I’ve inspired students to learn about programming, and that’s the most satisfying thing.”
Postdoctoral student Justin Caram feels the same about explaining his research to kids and adults. He’s developing new quantum dots, nanoscale artificial crystals made from semiconducting materials. These dots are highly emissive (they produce lots of light), very stable, and have tunable properties, which make them especially useful for biomedical devices. These dots can be tuned to emit infrared light (IR), which allows direct visualization inside the body, since human skin is transparent to IR. Researchers can explore disease mechanisms in a living system, which can lead to better methods of diagnosis and treatment.
This is a mouthful for a layperson, of course. Caram starts with the basics: what does “nano” mean? “Nano research is the frontier of biological, chemical, and physical science, but it’s an umbrella term. People often tell me they just think it has to do with tiny robots,” he laughs. “Kids and even adults just aren’t familiar with orders of magnitude. I try to communicate this scale size—smaller than the width of a human hair! Smaller than bacteria!” he continues. “I generally say, ‘Nano is the world you can’t see without a very powerful microscope.’ I try to draw an analogy that means something to people.”
He often asks audiences to pull out their phones. “I tell people, ‘This phone used to take up an entire room. Now it’s this small, thanks to nanotechnology.'”
His experiences through RCL have been “worth every second,” says Caram, both because he’s been able to showcase his work and inspire people to further appreciate this powerful technology. He’s also cleared up a few preconceived notions about life as an MIT postdoctoral student.
“People like to ask me if I have the summers off as a student. I have to tell them it doesn’t quite work that way,” he chuckles.
Read about MIT’s construction of a state-of-the-art nanotechnology facility in the Spring 2015 issue of Spectrum: “Introducing MIT.nano”