Cornell's new Keck Program in Nanobiotechnology will train
engineer-scientists to link living with mechanical
FOR RELEASE: April 25, 2000
Contact: Roger Segelken
Office: (607) 255-9736
ITHACA, N.Y. --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
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."
Related World Wide Web sites: The following sites provide
additional information on this news release. Some might not be part of the
Cornell University community, and Cornell has no control over their content
-- The Nanobiotechnology Center:
-- Keck Fellowship application:
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