On July 5, ACS Publications hosted an Ask Me Anything (AMA) on Reddit’s r/Science with Professor Chad A. Mirkin to discuss what’s new in nanoscience and more. Professor Mirkin teaches chemistry, biomedical engineering, materials science, and medicine at Northwestern University, and is the Director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology. He is best known for the invention of dip-pen nanolithography (DPN), and is the only chemist to be elected to all three National Academies. In addition to his extensive work in the world of nanoscience and nanotechnology, Professor Mirkin serves as an Associate Editor of The Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS), the ACS’ oldest and most prominent journal. Redditors had a lot of questions for Professor Mirkin, below are some highlights:
/u/Sjmman: What nanotechnology research going on right now do you think will have the biggest impact in 5-10 years?
Professor Mirkin: To me the subfield of nanomedicine holds the greatest promise. Much of what is happening in electronics is more evolutionary rather than revolutionary — still very important but the path was in place prior to the modern nanotech revolution. In medicine, however, certain nanostructures have proven to be useful for creating multifunctional probes and therapeutics that go well beyond what molecular systems can do. In the process, they are changing how we study, track, and treat disease.
/u/crack_butt: Hello Professor Mirkin! I am currently studying chemistry but so far it seems like the only career paths available to me after college are those in pharmaceuticals or “research”. How did you get into nanotechnology?
I got into nanotechnology through chemistry. The field is fueled by advances in analytical methodology (tools that allow one to visualize and manipulate nano structures) and synthesis. Chemists are playing central roles in both categories. Stay in science and pursue what really excites you — there are always job opportunities for motivated, passionate people, regardless of sub-discipline. As a nanotechnology/chemistry expert you can work in the chemical industry, the oil industry, consulting, intellectual property law, and the pharma industry. I got into the field based purely on interest – many of the techniques we currently use did not exist when I was in graduate school. We trained ourselves and in the process invented many new tools.
/u/nate: What are some examples of recently commercialized nano technologies?
Research tools involving new forms of imaging, manipulating, and patterning nanostructures have been rapidly developed, commercialized, and disseminated around the globe. These have propelled work in the field. In addition, there are many more spanning the electronics industry (every computer chip) and catalysis (nanostructured particles) as well as less obvious ones in medicine, especially medical diagnostics. For example, the VerigeneTM system is a medical diagnostic tool used for point-of-care medicine in half the nation’s top hospitals — used to identify patients with blood stream infections, where a rapid response is required to inform patient care. Finally, there are quite a few nanomedicines in clinical trials for diseases spanning breast cancer, brain cancer, and psoriasis.
/u/rvathrwaway: Hello Dr. Mirkin, thanks for doing this. Many “cool” things have been possible using nanotechnology, but years in, they seem to have over-promised and under-delivered. DNA origami, Carbon nanotubes (till graphene came along) etc. Every technical talk seems to rehash the same benefits even though many of these were promised at least a decade or more ago. What is your view on these and the chances of seeing tangible benefits in the marketplace in the near term?
I have a less cynical view. At the start of any new field, there is a lot of hope and hype. As scientists dig in, they often find it is more difficult than originally anticipated. After only 15 years, we have thousands of new technologies enabled by nano science. From our lab alone, there over 1800 commercial products that can trace their routes to scientific advances at the university. I would argue that commercial development has been remarkably fast. We will see even more in the decade to come.
/u/Forestman88: What is the difference between nanotechnology and just plain old ordinary chemistry? Sometimes I can’t seem to see the difference but one term is fancy and the other is boring.
They are related. Nanoscience focuses on structures that are bigger than most of the molecular systems that the vast majority of chemists work on — they are structures on par with the scale of biology. Chemistry often enables their synthesis or fabrication. These structures, because of their relatively large size, can have more complex properties, which open opportunities for new applications.
/u/JavaPython_: I often think of nanoscience as robots on a subcellualar or even submolecular level. What is nanoscience, and on what scale does it occur?
The robotic aspect is a vestige of science-fiction. The real opportunity in nanoscience comes from the very simple observation that all materials are different when miniaturized to, or restructured on, the nanoscale. This means everything old, when miniaturized, becomes new and different, and the discovery and classification of those differences can lead to technological solutions to some of our most pressing problems. Bulk gold when miniaturized to the 10 nm length scale is red in color and becomes useful as a diagnostic probe or dye. Semiconductors when miniaturized have tailorable band gaps. DNA when organized on the nanoscale into spherical structures can naturally enter cells and be used for intracellular diagnostic and therapeutic purposes. The list goes on.