Area students get hands-on nanotechnology training

Publication: Chicago Tribune: TribLocal.com
July 22, 2009
Kimberly Reishus

Glencoe resident Sean Murdock is on a mission to make nanotechnology an integral part of what the United States is doing in the field of science.

Part of getting that talent means getting tomorrow’s scientists-today’s young people-motivated and interested in going into nanotechnology careers.

So, Murdock created a Chicago-based program that lets area students spend their summers in nanotech labs around the suburbs. Now in its second year, the NanoBusiness Talent Fellowship is open to Illinois high school juniors and seniors.

Murdock is the executive director of the NanoBusiness Alliance, a Chicago-based non-profit organization that works toward promoting nanotechnology and creating a positive policy climate for the field.

The goal of the talent fellowship, sponsored by the NanoBusiness Alliance, is to put students in environments where they are working on transformative research in nanotechnology alongside the professionals.

Michael Pearlman, 18, from Wilmette and a recent graduate of New Trier High School, is one such student. He’s spending his time at Nanosphere, a nanotechnology-based healthcare company that offers technologies that simplify diagnostic testing, in Northbrook.

The program puts students in environments where they are working on transformative research in the nanotechnology field, Murdock said.

Pearlman’s experience so far this summer is consistent with that. He said he is learning what it takes to turn research and ideas into a product with consistent results. “I have learned how to set up the tests and then analyze the data we get back,” Pearlman said. “The amount of detail that we have to keep about the tests has been unlike the experiments in high school.” The nation is powered by scientific innovation, Murdock said.

“It’s technological innovation that has powered our economy and our quality of life,” he said.

Murdock also said that the younger generations are at risk because the country is loosing its footing in the arena of science.

“The U.S. is losing leadership in science and technology because we’re not producing the talent that we used to,” he said.

The fellowship program aims to encourage students to change the world through science.

Seven other students from Chicagoland are also part of the program. From a little less than 100 applicants, eight students were selected to work at the nanotechnology companies.

The students are: Abigail Chao, from Illinois Math and Science Academy, is at Advanced Diamond Technologies in Romeoville. Kevin Chen, from Illinois Math and Science Academy, is at Ohmx in Evanston. Zachary Epstein, from Adlai E. Stevenson High School, is at NanoIntegriss in Skokie. Yifei Huang, from Illinois Math and Science Academy, is at NanoInk in Skokie. Kai-Le Moy, from Glenbrook North High School, is at Questek in Evanston. Paul Schied, from Lyons Township High School, is at Nanotope in Skokie. Fangzhou Yu, from Adlai E. Stevenson High School, is at NanoInk in Skokie.

The finalists-20 students in all-attended a weeklong boot camp at Argonne National Laboratories.

During the camp, the interns went through safety training and received a broader overview of how nanotechnology impacts the world.

Zheng Wang, 18 and of Northbrook, said he enjoyed the lectures at Argonne.

“I had never gone in-depth in nanotechnology before, so it was really cool to see how it could be used in so many different ways,” Wang said. “I especially enjoyed the seeing the future concepts and ideas for nanotechnology.”

When Murdock created the program, he had two goals. First, at a national level, he wanted to inspire students to go into the sciences.

He’s definitely getting through to the participants.

Epstein, 18 and of Buffalo Grove, said he is most interested in the future implications of nanotechnology, and he’s focused on what could eventually be possible.

“We might one day manufacture little machines to repair the depleted ozone layer, efficiently harness energy from radiation, target individual cancer cells-there are no limits to what we could achieve,” Epstein said.

Murdock’s other goal, at the local level, is to make Chicago a world leader in nanotechnology.

“We produce incredible talent here, but we don’t retain it,” Murdock said. “Some of the leading people at the leading companies globally came out of Chicago or Chicago-area institutions.”

Murdock said he wants to grow the talent here and give that talent local connections and a sense of place so when students have gone through their schooling and training, they won’t be recruited to other areas of the country.

Murdock himself is a Chicago guy.

“I’m as deeply connected to the Chicago area as you can be,” he said.

He has lived in Chicago, Glencoe or Evanston for most of his life, has family in the area and has a management degree from Northwestern’s Kellogg Graduate School.

Murdock said the applicants were extraordinary.

“A lot of these kids are going to have an incredible impact on the world,” he said. “I hope [the students] really develop a tangible appreciation for how nano science, in particular, is going to be an incredibly important career opportunity going forward and how it’s going to change the world.”

Pearlman said he plans on studying science in college, and he is heading to Princeton in the fall to start an engineering degree. He also said he would like to continue working with nanotechnology.

Just from the time spent at Argonne, when the students talked with scientists doing research in the nanotechnology field, Pearlman was fascinated, he said.

“I really got a sense of science happening and developing outside the classroom,” Pearlman said. “It was amazing to see how much there still is left to discover.”

Epstein also said he’ll continuing in the sciences when he starts at Duke University in the fall.

“My main goal is to contribute to our understanding of the universe,” he said. “I firmly believe that advancing our understanding of science at the subatomic level is the key to unleashing nanotechnology’s full potential.”

Chicago is piloting the program, but the fellowship will eventually be offered nationally.

After the eight weeks of lab work are complete, the students will present their research to their companies as well as family, friends and the public from 5 to 8 p.m. Aug. 13 at the Illinois Science and Technology Park, 4901 Searle Parkway, Skokie.

For more information about NanoBusiness Alliance, visit www.nanobusiness.org.

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