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First NanoEngineering Degrees Awarded to UC San Diego Undergrads

April Pereira
April Pereira, (left) one of the first UC San Diego students to earn an undergraduate degree in nanoengineering, at work in a senior design lab. Pereira is a Marine Corps veteran twice deployed to Iraq.

Stripped down to the most basic process, nanoengineering "is the manipulation of molecules and atoms in order to construct things from the bottom up," said Cody Carpenter, a member of the first class of Jacobs School undergraduates to earn a degree in NanoEngineering.

Carpenter called nanoengineering "the second industrial revolution" and it's clear that he and his fellow graduates feel they are embarking on an open-ended professional journey that is simultaneously pioneering and immensely practical. Nanoengineering is being applied to most industries from energy to medicine to computer science, which is why the nanoengineering curriculum gives undergraduates a strong foundation in physics, chemistry and biology. Students are also required to select a focus area in materials science, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, bioengineering or chemical engineering.

Beautiful. Creative. Cutting-edge. Challenging. Open-ended. Hands-on.

...and most frequently, experimental. These are the words the first crop of nanoengineering undergraduates use to describe the program they helped to create simply by being among the first to do it. And, bolstered by the act of achieving a degree in such an interdisciplinary field, they feel confident about their unique skill sets and academic experiences.

"Once you understand that all fabrication-based companies are using nanoengineering, it's all about making that connection between what they already know and what you're doing in the lab," said Yahya Alvi, who will spend the summer interning at Intel before returning this fall to earn his master's in nanoengineering. Eventually, Alvi plans to also earn an MBA and enter industry. He is interested in developing new medical diagnostics based on nanotechnology.

Like Carpenter and most undergraduates in nanoengineering, Alvi has been actively engaged in research. He worked in the laboratory of professor Andrea Tao where he learned to control the size and shape of silver and gold nanoparticles and mold them into cubes, triangles, pyramids and octahedrons.

Professor Donald Sirbuly, who along with Tao teaches the two-quarter senior design lab known as Nano 120, said learning about the complexity and sensitivity of processes occurring at the interface of materials is fundamental for students in nanoengineering and gives them a unique mindset as problem solvers. "They get a really good feel for how to work with the materials," said Sirbuly. "It's not enough to just know conceptually what's going on. We give them real, open-ended problems."

The senior design lab culminates in students designing a device that solves a problem in a field of their choice, generally selected from problems faculty researchers are experiencing. Going forward, Sirbuly would like to work even more closely with industry partners in order to challenge undergraduate researchers with problems currently facing the industrial sector.

"We encourage our students to think bigger than their coursework. How could you make an impact? There are bottlenecks in almost every technology," said Sirbuly. "The point of nanoengineering is to build the next-generation engineer. I think they're going to have a very broad skill set."

UC San Diego began offering nanoengineering as an undergraduate degree program in fall 2010. Since then, undergraduate enrollment has grown from 51 students to 273, and is expected to reach nearly 400 students this fall.

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