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Q&A with Andrea Tao, NanoEngineering Professor

We sat down with professor Andrea Tao to discuss nanoengineering education, research and jobs. Tao's research is focused on fabricating functional nanostructure materials. Most recently, her research group developed a technique that enables metallic nanocrystals to self-assemble into larger, complex films and arrays for next-generation antennas and lenses. Much of Tao's work involves making materials using wet chemistry – which is a powerful approach because it provides fine-grained control when designing a material from scratch.

Andrea Tao
Andrea Tao joined the NanoEngineering faculty at the Jacobs School in 2009. She earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from UC Berkeley.

The Jacobs School conferred its first crop of undergraduate degrees in nanoengineering this June. NanoEngineering, the first department of its kind, was established in 2007 and offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in nanoengineering and chemical engineering. The department plans to introduce a new undergraduate materials engineering degree in 2014.

How would you describe the NanoEngineering curriculum?

We teach core classes such as chemistry, biology and physics from a nanomaterials perspective. For example, I teach a class on the chemical principles of nanoengineering in which we look at things such as how the atoms in carbon nanotubes or graphene bond together to form their special nanoscale structures. Students need to understand how the properties of a nanotube or sheet of graphene come from atomic-scale bonding. Our students spend a lot of time studying the properties of nanomaterials and how to interface materials at the nanoscale. Our curriculum is designed so that students will have a very good understanding – both from classical study and hands-on lab research – of how to control and tune those properties to change the material. In our senior design lab, students have to synthesize nanoscale particles, wires and films and incorporate them into a device. They also learn how hard it is to work with nanomaterials. You really have to understand how chemical processes behave on the nanoscale in order to change them.

Chemical engineering is part of the NanoEngineering Department. What kinds of synergies do you see between the two disciplines?

Chemical engineering involves getting processes to work over large macroscopic scales – the scale of industrial-level manufacturing. It's figuring out how to take a vat of this chemical and mix it with a vat of that chemical. What are the processes that control how I'm going to manipulate chemical reactions at realistic industrial scales? As nanoengineers, we will eventually be interested in how to manufacture nanomaterials on industrial scales, so there's a lot of synergy between the two. But before we get to that point, nanoengineers work as materials scientists at the atomic level in order to manipulate a given nanomaterial or nanoscale process.

What careers are NanoEngineering students prepared for?

Many companies have products based on nanomaterial technologies. Screens on Kindles, iPhones and other devices operate using nanoparticles and electronic inks. Nanoengineering has applications in every field including medicine and energy production. Even some amber and green beer bottles keep carbon dioxide from leeching out thanks to nanotechnology and materials. It's an enabling technology that allows us to make better materials for pretty much anything. I think our nanoengineering students will be highly creative in the workplace or research lab, in part because we've created an interdisciplinary curriculum including hands-on work rooted in faculty research. Our students are also highly competitive for a variety of master's programs that often lead to industry jobs. They receive a solid foundation in all the core sciences and have extensive experience manipulating materials on the nanoscale. Many companies may not even realize they need employees who are trained in nanoengineering, but you'll see these skill sets in job descriptions if not in the actual job titles. It's just that companies often don't use the term "nanoengineering." But that is starting to change. I don't think we're too far off from having a job listing that says "looking for a nanoengineer."

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