UNCG and NC A&T partner to create joint program in nanotechnology

October 8, 2007
North Carolina Board of Science and Technology

The North Carolina Triad area will soon be transformed into a hub for nanotechnology.The University of North Carolina Greensboro (UNCG) and North Carolina A&T State University (NC A&T) are teaming up with the Greensboro business community to establish a groundbreaking graduate program in nanoscience and nanoengineering.

The Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering (JSNN), also called the Nanotechnology School, will be housed at the proposed Gateway University Research Park in the North Carolina Triad area. The 75-acre south campus of the research park will act as a central portal for nanotechnology and nanoscience in the Triad by connecting researchers, businesses, students, and community members.

The first Professional Masters students are expected to enroll in the fall of 2008, and the first Ph.D. students in fall of 2009, according to Rosemary Wander, Vice Provost for Research at UNCG. The JSNN will comprise about 12 faculty members in addition to a dean and administrative staff.

According to Wander, the vision for the JSNN is one that balances curiosity-driven research and purpose-driven research. Faculty members will interact with the business community to focus on applications of nanotechnology and nanoscience research.

Students enrolled at the JSNN can earn Professional Masters or PhD degrees. An advisory group of university leaders and faculty members from both campuses has already built curricula for the proposed programs. Programs of study will focus on three main areas: nanobioscience, which emphasizes biological and chemical aspects of nanoscience; nanotechnology, which emphasizes engineering and technological aspects; and environmental nanoscience, which will address ethical and environmental implications of nanoscience.

The biological and chemical research emphasis offered by the JSNN will be the first in the nation, according to the Greensboro Partnership, the principal economic and community development organization serving Greensboro. Denise Turner, Vice President of Governmental Affairs at the Greensboro Partnership, explains that the only other two existing professional master’s programs in nanoscience and nanoengineering are at Rice University and University of Albany at SUNY, and neither program offers a biological or chemical emphasis.

“At the heart of innovation is play,” says M. Douglas Speight, Director of Economic Development at NC A&T. According to Speight, the JSNN will provide an engaging atmosphere to enable researchers to “play”—by pooling together around challenges and having the freedom to investigate new ideas and applications.

The JSNN will leverage the cumulative research and academic expertise of the two universities as well as the commercial and entrepreneurial expertise afforded by the biotech companies already in the area. “One unique aspect of the program is the confluence of strength and research experience from the two universities,” explains Speight. It also will feed into efforts to establish a Center of Innovation (COI) focusing on nanobiotechnology. A $100,000 grant from the North Carolina Biotechnolgy Center will assist in efforts to plan the COI.

The JSNN will build on the track record of both universities. NC A&T has a 12-year history in nanoresearch and two centers of excellence for nanotechnology and nanoscience. Nanotechnology research at NC A&T has been funded at a rate of $3 to $5 million per year. UNCG has research expertise in nanobiotechnology and, along with Duke University, is the recipient of major federal grant funding in North Carolina for its work in genomic medicine.

Together, the two universities offer complementary areas of expertise that will create a strong foundation for the JSNN’s success.

“It’s been fascinating pulling together two campuses for an activity that could be so important to the growth of the Triad. If we make the Triad healthy, we contribute to making North Carolina healthy,” says Wander.

The JSNN will be funded by both government and private sources. The North Carolina General Assembly recently authorized $58million in funding toward the creation of the JSNN, of which $5 million was appropriated for this year. “This funding will actually change the business climate in the Triad area,” says Turner. In addition to public funding, businesses and community leaders are ready to contribute towards the success of the JSNN.

From the conception of the JSNN, the Greensboro business community has worked as a cohort with the two universities. “The Greensboro Partnership has been instrumental in garnering support from local governments and the business community,” says Speight.

Students enrolled in the JSNN can expect to benefit from the school’s close ties to the business community. For example, Professional Master’s degree students will have opportunities for internships with local biotech companies, says Speight. The Professional Master’s degree will also allow continuing education opportunities for those who are already working in industry.

Companies such as Nanotech Labs and Quartek International, which are headquartered in the Triad region, can help give the JSNN a window into potential new applications. Input from such companies will help determine how to shape the JSNN’s academic program, and how to best train graduates to be competitive in securing and pursuing careers in nanotechnology and nanoscience.

In return, the program will offer the community many benefits, both long-term and short-term. The access to breakthrough research and the continuing education component provided by the Professional Master’s programs will help companies remain efficient and competitive. Through their ties with the JSNN, companies will benefit from access to the universities’ existing relationships with governmental agencies such as the National Science Foundation, NASA, and Oak Ridge National Laboratories.

In the long term, Speight and Wander hope that the JSNN and the business community will develop a regional pool of complementary technologies that can be used to attract more companies to the area.

According to the Greensboro Partnership, the Triad area has lost almost 40,000 jobs in the last four years as “legacy” industries such as manufacturing and textiles have been outsourced. “We must change in order to be successful,” says Wander, citing the need to move towards a more technology-based economy.

The president of the UNC System, Erskine Bowles, recently called for universities to play a larger role in economic transformation by partnering with local communities to “help every region of North Carolina foster and stimulate economic development.”The JSNN is one example of how the North Carolina university system is becoming more directly involved in local economic development.

Bold initiatives such as the JSNN, which pull together academia, government, and business, are key to fulfilling the vision to transform the Triad into a national leader in biotechnology research and innovation.

By Sharlini Sankaran

Sharlini graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in May 2007 with a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. In addition to her studies, she worked as Manager of Education Programs for Sigma XI, the scientific research society. She is currently a research consultant for the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and is teaching computer science at Durham Technical Community College.

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