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Cornell's new Keck Program in Nanobiotechnology will train engineer-scientists to link living with mechanical

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 fly's ear
Norman Tien, et al./Cornell University
Mimicking the tympanic membrane of a fly's ear, this pattern etched into a single-crystal silicon substrate could serve as a miniature, directionally sensitive hearing aid.

The emerging field of nanobiotechnology could hasten the creation of useful ultra-small devices that mimic living biological systems - if only biologists knew more about nanotechnology and engineers understood more biology.

They soon will. Starting in June 2000, the first 12 Ph.D. candidates will hit the laboratories of Cornell University's new W.M. Keck Program in Nanobiotechnology. The program has been inaugurated with a three-year, $1.2 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation of Los Angeles and is expected to receive other sources of support.

Keck Fellows will study with Cornell researchers who are working in the "nano" scale (as small as a few billionths of a meter) to invent hybrid devices that combine the best of the organic and the inorganic, the living and the engineered. Although this basic research at the interface of engineering and biology does not involve human subjects, the devices that will emerge could someday solve human problems:

-- Micro-mobile smart pharmacies, propelled through the human body with biomolecular motors that run on nature's ATPase energy, to dispense precisely metered drugs wherever and whenever cells (such as cancer cells) signal the need.

-- Nanofabricated surfaces with structural patterns to grow artificial pancreatic islets and reverse the effects of diabetes - or to grow "neuron repair kits" (brain-cell transplants) for those afflicted with Parkinson's or Alzheimer's disease.

-- Super-small, directionally sensitive hearing aids, based on the auditory organ of a tiny parasitic fly that homes in on the mating calls of crickets - as well as locomotory systems for microrobots based on the muscles of the flea, which can jump more than 100 times its own height.

The first dozen Keck Fellows won't be the first students to cross the organic-inorganic boundary at Cornell. Already, 12 graduate research assistants work in the Nanobiotechnology Center (NBTC), a national, Cornell-based consortium of institutions, under the direction of Harold Craighead, Cornell professor of applied and engineering physics, that includes the New York State Department of Health's Wadsworth Center, Oregon Health Sciences University and Princeton University. The center was established last year with $19 million in aid from the National Science Foundation. The first Keck Fellows will be joined by others as additional funding becomes available.

Keck Fellows will be able to earn degrees from departments in any of three colleges at Cornell - Engineering, Arts and Sciences or Agriculture and Life Sciences - and faculty members will come from specialized fields in those colleges.

According to Michael Isaacson, the Cornell professor of applied and engineering physics who is the director of the W.M. Keck Program in Nanobiotechnology at Cornell, scientists and engineers need all the help they can get to seamlessly merge the organic and the inorganic into useful devices. And so will the entire new field of nanobiotechnology. His solution is to train what he calls T-shaped individuals.

"T-shaped scientists are educated at great depth in one field - electrophysiology, for example - but they also have an interdisciplinary reach in at least two other directions - such as biochemistry and nanotechnology," Isaacson explains. In academic terms, this means that Ph.D. students who are Keck Fellows will major and minor in two distinct disciplines, one from the physical sciences or engineering and the other in the biological sciences, and their Ph.D. committee members will come from distinct fields as well.

"And Keck Fellows will be trained in communication - with others in their specialties, with scientists outside their fields and with the general public," Isaacson says. "In the real world, one spends 10 percent of the time actually doing engineering and 90 percent of the time communicating - about what you and others have done, what you're trying to do now and what you hope to do. Communication is hard enough in the language of your discipline. These new scientists will be crossing boundaries all the time, and we need to know what they're talking about."

Some of the nanobiotechnology research-and-teaching venues already exist at the university, such as the College of Engineering's Cornell Nanofabrication Facility, but the best are yet to come with Duffield Hall, planned for completion on the Cornell campus in 2003. The state-of-the-art facility will include characterization and fabrication laboratories, to be equipped, in part, with funds from the Keck program.

Characterization labs will be used to study living systems "the way nature made them, to see if we're doing it right," Isaacson explains. And separate fabrication laboratories are necessary, he notes, because nanobiotechnology involves many more materials than pure silicon, the traditional medium for integrated circuitry. "In silicon-based fabrication, some of the materials in biological systems, sodium for example, are contaminants and would not be allowed in the same building," Isaacson says. "Nanobiotechnology research may involve sodium and lots more, and our fabrication laboratory facilities will be specially designed to take that complexity into account.

"We're not trying to disband the traditional academic specialties," says Isaacson. "In the academic world, specialized disciplines will always be the best environment to create new knowledge. But nanobiotechnologists will need the best education from several different disciplines.

"And at Cornell, they will get that education by freely crossing boundaries and learning the principles, the skills and the languages of all the sciences they need to make living systems and engineered systems work hand in hand - or rather, molecule to molecule."