I write science fiction and fantasy—mostly novels, but short stories too—and I’m best known for my high-tech science fiction. I live in Hawaii; it’s where I grew up and went to school. Quoting from my author bio, I’ve been a writer, a mom, a programmer of database-driven websites, and an independent publisher. What am I passionate about? Well, the world, this world, the most interesting world there is, the only known living planet, the planet to which we are exquisitely adapted—yet so many of us fail to appreciate this amazing, beautiful, irreplaceable world, threatened now by global warming and an ongoing loss of biodiversity, and by war, and runaway technology.
What sparked your interest in science and science fiction?
My dad was big into popular science—through TV and books—and that interest rubbed off on me. At the same time, I loved to read, and I loved adventure stories. The stories could be set in the wilderness, on a sailing ship, the seashore, or someone’s backyard—it didn’t matter. I was into it. It was an easy step from there to science fiction, especially since my dad loved the genre and always had books around.
You’ve been described as one of the pioneers of nanopunk fiction. What is nanopunk, and would you consider it an accurate description of your work?
It’s nice to be considered a pioneer, but nanopunk isn’t a term I use. I mean, most of my stuff is not very “punk.” I like the terms nanotech or biotech science fiction better, though granted those terms are not nearly as catchy!
What prompted you to write The Nanotech Succession series? What was it about nanotechnology that drew your interest?
Like so many people back then, I was inspired by K. Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation–and I also knew just enough about biology and biochemistry to recognize that we are made up of naturally evolved nanomachines. So maybe some of this stuff was possible? And if it was, what then? That question was the seed from which the entire series grew.
Personally, I love the realism of your more unlikable characters. I’d say “villains”, but I’m not sure that’s the correct word, since they have a lot more complexity and depth of motivation than a typical movie baddie who just wants to destroy the world. I’m thinking of characters like Roxanne in Tech Heaven or Kirsten Adair in The Bohr Maker. How do you go about creating characters like that? Do you base them off real people? Perhaps an old boss?
I call them antagonists—and they all have their own story. In the two books you mentioned, the protagonists are exploring the bleeding edge of technology, pushing the envelope as far as they can. The antagonists are there as a foil, a means to make the protagonists’ quest more difficult, but also to represent an opposing view. There are a lot of reasons to legitimately oppose what the “heroes” are up to in these books. A good antagonist lets me explore issues from multiple points of view, exposing the positive and the negative. Kirsten Adair is cruel and brutal, but she’s got legitimate concerns. And Roxanne—I love Roxanne. She’s my secret hero because though she behaves badly, she’s mostly right.
One of our missions is to promote STEM and nanotechnology. Many of my colleagues attribute their initial interest in science to Star Trek or other science fiction works. Sci-fi and fantasy writers seem to be better than professional scientists at generating interest in STEM. What are some things science fiction writers can teach professional scientists about communicating effectively?
“Sense of wonder” is a term often used in conjunction with science fiction, though only a segment of the genre is really interested in trying to evoke it. Still, I think that’s one key to capturing the interest of bright kids who might go on to do good things for the world. Try to communicate the sense of wonder that led you to your work, along with a can-do sense of the possible. This world is facing a lot of serious problems. Give young people reason to believe the research and problem-solving is all worthwhile.
Looking at science fiction from the 1950’s and 60’s, it seems like people at that time had a much more optimistic view of science and technology. For example, a lot of comic book heroes created at the time—characters like Tony Stark, Reed Richards, and Janet Van Dyne—were scientists or engineers. Star Trek depicted a life beyond the stars that included equal opportunities for people of all genders and cultures. I worry we’ve lost that sense of hope, because a lot science fiction created today is pretty dystopian. Scientists in today’s movies are usually the bad guys. Do you have any sense for what caused that shift?
In part, I think, people are just more cynical and more aware that things go wrong. They know science does not always improve the world. Three things that popped into my head when I first read this question were DDT, Agent Orange, and nuclear war. All were huge concerns in that era. There was also a sense of hubris. I do think there are more good movies and shows these days dealing with STEM topics. For All Mankind is a recent one that really impressed me.
It’s interesting to look back at older science fiction and see how accurately it anticipated the future. Early writers envisioned a lot of the technologies we have today, but they often got things dramatically wrong. (I’m always amazed by the amount of smoking in Asimov books.) As you look back at some of your earlier work, are there any technologies that past-you would be impressed to learn she forecasted correctly? Are there any technologies she’d wish she had predicted?
I’ll leave it to readers to decide what I got right, but two things that have profoundly influenced the degree of difficulty in writing near-future fiction (things I didn’t struggle so much with in the early days) are the ubiquity of smart phones and surveillance cameras. Wow, those two things can drain the suspense right out of a lot of potentially dramatic situations! :-)
Last Question: If you had to hire a nanobot to do a job for you, what job would you hire it to do?
Ha! Every now and then, when I have an especially frustrating day getting basic technology to work properly, I pause and wonder if we’ll ever reach the point where we’ll trust the really tricky stuff to work. But just a single nanobot, huh? So many possibilities! Do I go with health? Or environment? I can’t decide!
Linda, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today! We look forward to reading your future work. If you'd like read more from Linda, you can find her books through various book sellers listed on her website.
My career started in Graphic Design right before dropping out of college. That love for visual design has carried me through my entire career. I am very passionate about combining things I’m curious about and creating art with it. This can be an animation film, an illustration, or a feature film.
In 2013, you directed A Boy and His Atom, a stop-motion animated short film created by IBM Research scientists. The movie holds the Guinness World Records™ record for the World's Smallest Stop-Motion Film. How did you get involved in this project?
At the time I was living in NYC and working with a production company. The way it works is a client, in this case IBM, works with their advertising agency, in this case BBDO and they look for director that can execute on their idea. BBDO had the idea of creating an animation using a Scanning Tunneling Microscope. They knew that in the past, scientists had composed images using individual atoms. This would require pushing that technique to the extreme. I was invited to pitch my vision for the film among other filmmakers and was lucky enough to get it. That’s how the adventure started.
What exactly does it mean to direct a film with a STM? Did you get a chance to play around with the STM equipment?
The STM is an extremely complicated and extremely technical piece of equipment. The scientists let me move the joystick once, but they let kids touring the premises do that, so it was unrelated with my skills. The film had to be executed by the scientists. They were the animators. It was an exciting journey that started with findings ways of communicating my artistic ideas and transferring them to the technical language they needed to operate.
Your website lists a wide variety of professional interests and experiences including film, commercials, two books, and drawings. Did you also have an interest in science before making A Boy and His Atom?
Science is a big inspiration for my work. I found that basic science is no different than poetry.
Conventional animation can be incredibly time consuming. Animating by moving single atoms around using an STM must be even more so. How long did the process take?
The scientists spent 6 weeks nonstop animating the atoms. It’s an incredibly time consuming process. Exponentially slower than a traditional animation.
The thing I love about the boy in the film is that despite the fact that he’s made of only a handful of atoms, he’s remarkably expressive. Was that difficult to achieve?
Extremely difficult. We had to balance the character design and the story with the amount of operations the scientists could achieve in the timeline. A more complex character would have meant more pieces to move and more time that we didn’t have.
What’s harder: directing carbon monoxide molecules or directing people?
For sure Carbon Monoxide molecules. People renders themselves in motion!
On your website, the description of your book, Been there, done that, states,
A similar thing is true in science. We’re naturally curious and ask questions about the world around us until we reach a certain age. Do you have any advice for readers on how they can recapture that sense of creativity and curiosity we all had when we were younger?
One hundred percent! I truly believe that everyone, not only artists, have the duty to reconnect with child-like curiosity, this is the engine of great engineering, entrepreneurship and art.
Last question: You’ve directed a film made of nanotechnology. If you had to hire a nanobot to do a job for you, what job would you hire it to do?
Given the amount of work that takes, I would hire nano bots to bind to my adenosine receptors to prevent my neural activity to slow down making me feel tired. They would be the perfect substitute for coffee!
Nico, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today! If you'd like to learn more about Nico, visit his website at www.nicocasavecchia.com.
Today's guest studies some of the largest objects in the solar system by examining some of its smallest objects. Dr. Sheri Singerling is a cosmochemist and author. She works as an instrument specialist for NanoEarth at Virginia Tech, where she uses scanning electron microscopy (SEM), focused ion beam (FIB), and transmission electron microscopy (TEM) to unravel mysteries about our early solar system.
Sheri, you’ve worked at a variety of interesting places including the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, US Geological Survey, and Natural Museum of Natural History. Tell us a bit about yourself and your career. What are you passionate about?
My background is in geology, but I’m a bit unusual because I study rocks (and dust) from space. I’ve always been fascinated by astronomy, but I didn’t really think to go into physics until I was already well into my geology degree during college. I figured out that I could combine my interest in rocks and minerals with my love of space by studying meteorites. So that’s what I did and am still doing! For my graduate degrees, I looked at meteorites from different types of asteroids, and then after I finished my doctorate, I had an excellent opportunity to study stardust (yes, actual dust from stars) for a couple of years. I investigate meteorites and stardust using really powerful microscopes called electron microscopes. These use a beam of electrons instead of light to image samples, and this lets us see to very high magnification (over 1 million times) and down to very small scales (the nanoscale). I’m obviously very passionate about studying these kinds of samples and learning about the Solar System in its earliest stages. It’s so fascinating to me that just by looking at these pieces of rock, we can learn about all the complex and strange things that were happening billions of years in the past.
Dr. Singerling standing next to a microscope (TEM) that she uses in her stardust research.
How did you first get interested in science and nanotechnologies?
I’ve always gravitated towards the sciences. It was always my favorite subject in school, but for some reason, I was under the impression for the longest time that only “geniuses” could become scientists. I had really good grades, but I definitely did not feel like I was “smart” enough to be a scientist. Looking back, it seems strange that I thought that way, but part of the problem is that, as kids, we don’t see how science really works. So much of science is making mistakes and learning from them, not being “smart”. In any case, once I was in college, I took an introductory geology course as my science credit and, from that, realized that I could be a scientist. I will say that the nanoscience part of my expertise is much more recent. It was only when I started my doctorate that I started using a type of really powerful electron microscope that images down to the nanoscale. Because of that, I had to start thinking like a nanoscientist.
Your Twitter bio lists you as a “cosmochemist”. For those who don’t know, what does a cosmochemist do?
A cosmochemist studies cosmochemistry. Nothing like defining a word by using another word! Cosmochemistry is just a fancy term for the study of elements, their abundances, and where we find them (which minerals) in meteorites. It can give us clues about the processes happening in the early Solar System. For me, it’s not the kind of chemistry most people usually imagine, where you’re in a lab with a lot of chemicals and wearing a lab coat, safety glasses, and gloves all day. It’s more the periodic table kind of chemistry. I think a lot of elements and how they behave with one another.
When people think of nanotechnology, they often think of new materials and medical technologies made out of tiny particles. You study the early solar system. What can tiny things teach us about something as large as the solar system?
That’s an excellent point and one I also ran into when I first started thinking about myself as a nanoscientist. Anyone who either makes or looks at things on the nanoscale can call themselves a nanoscientist because we are all having to view our work through the lens of the very small. Materials behave very differently on the nanoscale. This is true of materials that we make and also those that are naturally occurring, like what I study. The reason I look at tiny things to learn more about the Solar System is because that’s where a lot of the secrets about how it formed are hiding. Most of the information about the Solar System’s beginnings has been obscured by more recent processes, especially on the Earth where we have things like plate tectonics and weathering changing the surface. Small bodies, like the asteroids, have been much less affected and still have lots of information about their past. That being said, we usually can’t just look at images of an asteroid to know what’s really going on with it. Ideally, we want information on the minerals that are there, which requires us to look on smaller scales. Something as simple as observing clay minerals in a meteorite can tell us that the asteroid the meteorite came from had water on it at one point. We now think that most of the water on Earth, including in all of us, was delivered by asteroids.
Your current job is at Virginia Tech’s NanoEarth. Tell us about the interesting work being done there.
NanoEarth exists to bring the nanosciences to the geosciences. Historically, the earth and environmental sciences have been relatively slower at incorporating nanoscience into research. Other fields like physics, chemistry, biology, and engineering have really embraced using nanoscience tools, but the geosciences have lagged behind. This is unfortunate, because, as I mentioned, there is so much we can learn about larger-scale processes from nanoscale investigations. At NanoEarth, we work with researchers interested in using nanoscience techniques and help them develop their projects, collect the data, and interpret the results. Anyone is welcome to participate, and we’re always looking for work to collaborate on. Our website has more information on how to apply.
One of the things I love about conversing with scientists is that they often have fascinating interests and hobbies even outside of their research. You self-published a novel, The Neohumanoids, in 2014. What’s it about and what led you into creative writing?
Creative writing is definitely a passion-project for me, and like science, it’s always been something that I’ve loved doing. I actually wrote Neohumanoids way back in 2006 and only got around to self-publishing it when I realized that was an option. It’s a science fiction novella (a short novel) about a scientist in the early 1900s who figures out how to stop aging using genetics. Like most of my creative writing, it’s hard science fiction, which is a subgenre of science fiction that presents the science very realistically and with a lot of detail. I find creative writing to be a nice outlet for my more artistic side. That’s not to say that you can’t be artistic in science, but scientific writing is very constraining. In science papers, you are trying to present your findings in a very clear, concise way. It’s nice to get to break the rules and really do whatever you want in creative writing. I’m actually just wrapping up edits to a new novel I’ve been working on the past couple of years, but I’ll be trying the traditional publishing route this time around. Wish me luck!
What advice would you give a 12-year-old who isn’t sure if she’d rather be a scientist or an author?
I would say, you can be both! There are plenty of examples—Issac Asimov, Arthur Clarke, and Carl Sagan to name a few. What really matters is doing what you love. There is always time to figure things out, and when you are still a student, you should use the opportunity to try out as many different subjects as you can. Being well-rounded is useful to both scientists and writers. Explore!
You describe yourself as a passionate environmentalist. If you had to recommend one habit our readers could adopt to be more environmentally friendly, what would it be?
There are so many choose from, but if it had to be down to one, I would say that composting is an easy habit to pick up that makes a huge difference. Composting is just recycling your food scraps into fertilizer rather than throwing them in the trash. If you have your own yard, you can do backyard composting, but if you’re in an apartment, you can try worm composting. If you’re lucky enough to live somewhere that offers it, there are also composting collection/drop-off programs all over. These have the added bonus of usually also accepting meat and cheese scraps, which you can’t compost if doing it on our own. You could also push your local officials to implement such a program if you don’t already have one. Composting is an amazing science project of its own, and it does wonders for cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions. Did you know that everything you send to the landfill doesn’t actually break down? Landfills are designed this way. Why send food scraps to landfills if we can break them down ourselves?
Last Question: If you had to hire a nanobot to do a job for you, what job would you hire it to do?
Could I hire a swarm of them to do my dishes? I really spend so much time on dishes somehow. No but seriously, I would say I’d hire a nanobot to do a final pass on the samples that I make so that they were as nice and thin as possible. In my research, I use a technique called the focused-ion beam (FIB) to cut a thin slice of my meteorite or stardust samples. I look at these on the transmission electron microscope (TEM), which requires very thin (~100 nanometers) samples so that the electron beam can go through the sample. One of the most time-consuming parts of my research is just preparing these thin slices with the FIB. I’d be thrilled to have a nanobot do all the stressful final touches on my samples. That might cut back on some of my gray hairs.
Sheri, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today! We'll get to work on the dish washing nanobots. If you'd like to learn more about the Sheri, you can find her on Twitter or check out her novella The Neohumanoids. To learn more about NanoEarth, visit their website.
Hello Nanotech Enthusiasts,
In an effort to showcase interesting nanoscience research, we're kick starting a Q&A blog this year. We've got a great first guest. Andres Canales is a Senior Laboratory Engineer at Advanced Silicon Group (ASG). ASG is developing the next generation biosensors.
Andres, tell us a little about yourself and your background.
I just reached two years of being the Senior Laboratory Engineer at ASG. Before that I was working as a researcher in the Bioelectronics Group at MIT, where I spent 9 years. I got my Master's degree and PhD in Materials Science and Engineering, and then worked as a postdoctoral fellow during that time. Before coming to MIT, I got my Bachelor's degree in Chemistry at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in my native Mexico City.
How did you get interested in nanoscience/engineering?
As you can tell, I have been interested in science/engineering for a long time now. Even before entering college, I knew that I wanted to get into science or engineering. During college, I took classes on many subjects of chemistry, but the ones that interested me the most were those relating to materials science. This branch focuses on understanding how the structure of a certain material (or collection of materials) affect its performance. This is very important when you are dealing with nanostructures, as you can have completely unexpected behaviors due to the extremely small sizes you deal with.
A good example is that of hydrophobicity. This is just a measurement of the degree to which water "sticks" to a certain surface. If you have ever seen a drop of water on a newly waxed car, you will notice that its shape is much closer to a sphere than what you would see on a dirty car, where the shape is much flatter. This is due to the wax on the car being hydrophobic. The amazing thing about nanoengineering is that if you can control the shape of a surface down to the nanometer (1 millionth of a millimeter) scale, you can control the hydrophobicity of that surface.
The idea of being able to understand and use this type of surprising, but extremely useful phenomena, attracted me to this field.
What drew you to ASG?
I learned of the technology that ASG was using, in which we take advantage of the nanoscale shape of the surface to increase the sensitivity of our sensors. Not only is the technology something that I am very interested in, but I was also drawn in by the possible applications.
ASG’s core technology is a silicon nanowire array produced by texturing silicon using metal enhanced etching. What is this structure useful for?
This specific structure is useful for a very, very wide range of applications. In ASG, however, we focus on the increased sensitivity of this structure to things that happen very close to the surface of our devices. This allows us to achieve lower limits of detection (we can detect smaller concentrations) and higher sensitivity (we can distinguish between two very close concentrations). We currently focus particularly on biosensors, which can be used in a lot of areas, such as medical diagnostics.
What can you detect with this biosensor? How sensitive is the method, and why are silicon nanowires better than other sensor technologies?
Right now, we focus on detecting proteins. If we have proteins dissolved in a certain solution, it might be interesting to know which proteins we have in solution, and also how much of each protein we have. In medicine, for example, this could help to determine if certain body functions are working appropriately, or too slow or too fast. We are still working on understanding how much can we take advantage of nanoscale effects to push the sensitivity of our sensors, but the main advantage of nanowire sensors with respect to non-nanoscale sensors is the added knob that we have. By controlling this knob, the exact shape of the surface, we can tune our device to make it more sensitive.
How has COVID affected ASG’s work? Did the company have to change how it did research? Are you seeing increased interest in certain applications?
When I joined ASG on January 2020, we were a very small company, with two full time employees. When COVID hit a couple of months later, with the accompanying lockdowns that followed, we were still able to do quite a bit of work from home. Since there were very few of us, there were quite a few things we needed to take care of, and we made use of those 3 months to do them. However, ASG relies on a lot of work in the lab. In the end, we need to do a lot of fabrication and chemistry which can't be done at home. Fortunately, we were able to resume normal operations after those 3 months. So in general, COVID slowed us down a little, but I don't think we were affected as badly as you often hear from other businesses.
The pandemic has certainly increased interest in the possible application of our sensors as COVID at-home tests. Since our measurements are much faster than many of the currently available methods, if we could tune our sensors to detect COVID proteins, we could in theory have everyone do a self-test before leaving home every day. This would help make decisions on whether it is safe to go certain places a lot easier. Unfortunately, making this change to our sensors is not as straightforward as we would like, so we haven't been able to reach that point.
Last question: If you had to hire a nanobot to do a job for you, what job would you hire it to do?
It would definitely have to be an imaging nanobot. Particularly one with microscopic capabilities (ideally would have resolution in the milli- to nanoscale). Maybe it would send the images to a computer via Bluetooth or something like that. It would be relatively easy to guide this bot through small channels and openings using air or water currents. You could then use this nanobot to see the structure of any surface easily, even in porous materials. You could also use this bot in the body and see individual cells. You could see them growing, dividing, etc., and you could see any damage on certain tissues. This would not only be very interesting from a curiosity perspective, but also very useful in healthcare. Other applications would be to detect and monitor fractures in the parts of, for example, airplanes. This would make flying so much safer!
Andres, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today! If you'd like to learn more about the ASG, go to their website at https://advancedsilicongroup.com/.
Want to learn more about science behind nanotechnology? DNP123 President Aaron Santos has you covered! Santos began posting physics lectures on YouTube a little over a year ago. Check them out to learn about motion, energy, thermodynamics, electricity, and even quantum mechanics!
In addition to standard physics lectures, Santos recently started a series of videos called Physics for Play. This series uses computer simulations to teach students how to play with physics, especially topics like nanoscience that are just beyond what you learn in a typical physics class.
While exploring ways of making nanotechnology affordable and easier to use, occasionally we come across a particularly innovative company. That's the case with with the Emerald Cloud Lab (ECL). I got a chance to talk with ECL's Head of Business Development and Strategy, Toby Blackburn.
Toby, tell us a little about you and your career.
I got my undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering at North Carolina State University and started my career at Biogen in cell culture, working on scaling processes from bench scale to manufacturing scale. I spent a lot of time in the lab during those years, but also a lot of time thinking about how to streamline and automate operations, and began to notice the impact that path dependency and corporate structures had on science. I eventually went back to school and received my MBA from Duke, moving into an Analytical Development function where I managed a large CRO budget and a team of analytical scientists. These transitions gave me the tools and opportunity to start implementing some of the ideas about how the execution of lab work could be better. After implementing significant improvements in lab execution, it was clear that there was an opportunity to further improve, but this would require a complete reimagining of the lab itself.
What drew you to ECL?
When I first visited our facility in South San Francisco, it was immediately clear that DJ Kleinbaum and Brian Frezza, ECL’s co-founders, had built something that addressed a lot of the laboratory execution problems I was seeing in industry. They had clearly rethought this lab from the ground up, considering all of the tools and technology available today, and came to the conclusion that a lab could operate completely remotely, and that there were inherent benefits in doing so. I jumped into the details, analyzing the capabilities of the ECL while considering the needs of a large biotech, and could not find any critical flaw in how the ECL could meaningfully improve enterprise level research and development.
On its website, ECL states that its mission is to “empower scientists to transcend the laboratory.” What does that mean in practical terms? Do you imagine a future where most lab work is done remotely?
I see a significant deviation between people’s perception of what a scientist does and reality. The common perception is that scientists spend their time thinking and designing experiments that result in very clear data. As most people who have spent time in the lab know, this simply isn’t the case. You spend a lot of time on the logistics of your experiments — ordering your materials and reagents, mixing stock solutions, scheduling time on an instrument, troubleshooting, finding samples, labeling tubes, servicing the instruments, sourcing new instrumentation, etc. — before you even get to your data. The wonderful byproduct of working in the ECL is that there is a clear separation between experimental analysis / design and experimental execution, returning all the time spent on lab logistics to scientists and enabling them to manage multiple experiments and projects simultaneously.
Suppose I want to run an experiment using ECL. From experimental design through data acquisition and analysis, walk us through a typical engagement. How much is automated and how much requires human hands?
You start with training, a guided tutorial conducted by our Scientific Developers, who are PhD level scientists whom we have taught how to program. The training sessions, which take a couple of days to complete, give you the basic skills needed to access and operate any of the 150+ instruments in the ECL.
From here, you’re ready to design your first experiment, which is made easier by our experiment builder tool, which allows you to point and click through sample selection and set parameters as if you were in front of the instrument. This helps bridge the gap between your scientific expertise and the programmable, scriptable language, called Symbolic Lab Language (SLL), that directly drives the execution of experiments. Once your experiment is set up, you press go and ECL takes over the execution.
Our entire lab is managed by software called ECL Engine. Engine can be best thought of as a lab traffic controller, managing all of the resources required to run your experiment and their physical flow through the lab. As far as automation, the ECL can handle readily automatable experiments, like using liquid handlers for a spectroscopy assay, as well as what would traditionally be difficult to automate, like pipetting or moving 2L bottles around the lab by using operators. We implement automation where it makes sense, and, in cases where there are redundant automated and manual functions, the scientist has complete control.
Once your experiment is completed, the data and metadata are collected in ECL Constellation. Constellation is a network of linked database objects that structures the data you generate into a highly organized knowledge graph, growing automatically over time as you run experiments. You can answer any questions you have about your experiments in seconds by surfing through your knowledge graph with a few clicks or keystrokes, or conduct searches across the full history of experiments run on the system — including your own data, any data shared within your organization, and any data published on the system. All of this data lives in the cloud, so you’ll never worry about sifting through loose files, emails, or thumb drives — your data is accessible from any computer with a secure login.
ECL Command Center provides over 4,500 powerful functions for data visualization, analysis, and simulation. The software also allows your experiments, data, analysis, results, and even scientific figures to be exported, shared, or published on the web. These tools can be accessed through a point-and-click interface or the commands can be directly entered into your lab notebook. This makes it easy to repeat or scale any analysis with a single command and to automate report generation through higher-level scripting.
What types of experiments and equipment is ECL currently equipped to run? What are you planning to add in the near future?
Our list of capabilities is rapidly growing as we bring on new instruments, so the most up to date list can be found here.
What are the benefits and drawbacks of using ECL as opposed to owning your own lab equipment?
From a purely lab execution standpoint, ignoring the enhanced value of the data network generated by ECL, some of the main benefits are flexibility, uptime, and integrated equipment maintenance. The diversity of equipment can provide scientists with options to work around an unplanned limitation of a particular technique. Our lab runs 24/7/365, so your experiments continue moving forward even when you’re not working. Lastly, our instruments run routine controls to ensure everything is working correctly, and equipment maintenance and troubleshooting are entirely handled by our team of experts, ensuring confidence in the output of your data without having to manage any of the logistics.
Because of COVID, much of the business world was forced to go remote, but that’s obviously difficult for most lab scientists. Have you seen an uptick in ECL usage since the pandemic began?
Companies are certainly re-evaluating their assumptions on how to manage business continuity for lab based employees as a result of COVID, which is an obvious value proposition of the ECL, and this re-evaluation is opening the door for people to see the additional value that the ECL can provide. For example, as we talk with enterprise customers, they are also interested in the ability of the ECL to be a central source of truth for their scientists who are spread across corporate locations, time zones, and countries. Startups are asking themselves whether they really need to build a lab, or even have offices, to get their companies going.
ECL is primarily focused on research and industry. Will there come a point when high schools and middle schools will be able to run labs remotely on equipment they can’t afford today?
I think that as ECL grows, and is able to take advantage of economies of scale, we will start to see opportunities to provide access to world class scientific instrumentation to anyone.
We have recently completed a pilot class at a large university, where students learned to operate Command Center and ran all of their experiments in the ECL, so that vision might not be far off in the future.
For the most part, humans are still doing the experimental design. Given how fast machine learning is progressing, is it realistic to expect that within the next 20-ish years, we could have something like robotic process automation (RPA) running a lab experiment from start to finish?
We have people working on the system today that are doing just that. Beyond fully running an experiment remotely, Command Center also contains the tools to automate your data analysis, script multiple experiments together, and program decision nodes about which experiment to run next, based on prior results. A straightforward example is using ECL to script column screening for novel compounds — you might not know the starting compound, but could programmatically step through a sequence of separations to identify what column chemistry and conditions work best.
This ability allows scientists to move up a layer of abstraction and manage entire workflows rather than managing each individual experiment. I expect that as the knowledge graph continues to grow, scientists will increasingly find ways to impart their decision making models into their experimental protocols, and continue to focus on the higher level work to direct where the science needs to go.
Last question: If you had to hire a nanobot to do a job for you, what job would you hire it to do?
Without a doubt, toothbrushing.
Toby, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today! If you'd like to learn more about the ECL, go to their website at www.emeraldcloudlab.com.
Earlier this year, I got to meet Jared Ashcroft and Billie Copley. Jared and Billie are Center Directors for the Micro Nano Technology Education Center (MNT-EC). Since they're doing a lot of exciting work in the the nano space, I invited them for a Q&A.
Tell us about yourselves. What are you passionate about these days?
JA – I am a Chemistry Professor at Pasadena City College as well as the Center Director for the Micro Nano Technology Education Center. My passions are in figuring out how we can increase passion and success in STEM classes using active learning pedagogies and in developing new academic pathways that allow students multiple opportunities to either transfer to a university or earn a certificate/associates degree and enter the STEM workforce. My focus is specifically on micro and nanotechnology technical education programs.
BC – I am the Micro Nano Technology Education Center’s Center Manager. I have been in the ATE world since 2011 when I started working for Deb Newberry at Nano-Link Center for Nanotechnology Education. I graduated from Dakota County Technical College in 2012 with my AAS in Nanoscience Technology. In 2018 I became the Project Manger of Nano-Link and in 2019 Jared asked me to come on board for a new grant he was writing.
Tell us about the Micro Nano Technology Education Center (MNT-EC).
JA – Pasadena City College, in collaboration with the Edmonds Community College, Portland Community College, and the Northwest Vista College, lead the ATE funded Micro Nano Technology Education Center (MNT-EC). The MNT-EC connects existing micro and nano NSF ATE Support Centers, 2-year technical colleges, four-year universities, and non-profit laboratories in an effort to focus on the preparation of a nationwide workforce for the manufacture of micro and nano technologies. Each member of the MNT-EC brings their resources (such as cleanrooms, educational materials, remote operation of lab instruments) to bear on the development of a common curriculum for associates, certificates, and degrees for the micro- and nanotechnologies. The content of this curriculum will be informed by the knowledge-skill-ability needs of industry members. Included in center activities are opportunities for faculty to increase student engagement through distance education, community outreach, and professional development workshops and hands-on experiences.
The microsystems and nanosystems technologies are becoming, if not already, pervasive throughout the daily human experience. The internet of things is expected to support a trillion micro-nano devices. Examples of micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) include pressor sensors, microphones, accelerometers, time-keeping devices, photonic devices, and medical instrumentation. The growth and convergence of these technologies will expand for the foreseeable future as the miniaturization and integration processes continues. A modern hi-tech workforce will be educated by MNT-EC educators to keep pace with these manufacturing developments.
With experienced ATE leaders from the Nanotechnology Applications and Career Knowledge Network (NACK), the Support Center for Microsystems Education (SCME), and the National Resource Center for Materials Education (MatEdU), among others partnering with the MNT-EC, MNT curriculum will be embedded in community colleges across the nation to increase the impact on and participation of their STEM faculty. Each MNT-EC partner will work with their local community to recruit and educate diverse students, increasing access and awareness to all students. The MNT-EC will increase the involvement of industry in the development and delivery of education elements by way of curriculum inputs and experts in the classroom, thus expanding the impact and scope of previous MNT-based ATE sponsored centers and projects.
BC – All of us here at MNT-EC are passionate and dedicated to what we do. Whether its materials, MEMS, nanoelectronics and applications, nanobiotechnology or photonics – we all love what we do. We have a desire to help faculty expand their curriculum or helping students see their bigger potential and overcome barriers. All of us want to make sure that the technicians and their faculty are prepared and excited about micro and nano technologies.
What would you say are the biggest challenges industry and educational groups are facing today, and how does MNT-EC help solve those problems?
JA – I look at the challenges from a community college perspective. We do not currently have enough MNT educational programs to fill the MNT technical workforce industry needs. We need to increase our programs across the country and come up with strategies to recruit students into our programs. As part of this effort we need to determine ways to make all students at community colleges and high schools aware that micro nanotechnology technician education programs exist. We must increase enrollment in the programs that we have as we are also developing more programs. This also includes outreach to future STEM community college faculty that can infuse MNT curriculum and programs into their school. We have lack of faculty, a lack of programs and a lack of students to fill industry needs.
BC – As a former student, I can tell you that the world does not know enough about our programs. I lived 15 minutes from the DCTC campus and never knew they had a nanoscience program until I went there to look into one of their other programs that was widely advertised. I think, for some, the word nanoscience or micro technology is scary. They think its PhD level stuff and that you have to be an A student in science to succeed.
We have to help the students and faculty work through that fear and realize that anyone who is willing to put the work in can be successful in our programs and get a good paying and highly rewarding job.
Likewise, I think industry needs to make the initiative to look around, learn about programs besides engineering and be willing to have conversations with their local community colleges. Sometimes I think people just get stuck in the mindset that they can’t have an impact on what is taught, when in reality it is the opposite.
In 2000, NSF predicted nanotechnology would be a trillion dollar market by 2015. It’s difficult to say whether or not this prediction came true, since nanotechnology is not a market by itself, but is instead embedded in so many industries. For example, a car company might use nanotech coatings on its vehicles, but Ford and GM likely wouldn’t think of themselves as nanotech companies. How do you engage companies that might not realize they’re using nanotech?
JA – This is another challenge we could mention above. Nanotechnology in and of itself is not always obvious. Creating a degree called Certificate in Nanotechnology may not resonate with industry. It is vital that we partner with industry and have them define what skills and standards a micro nanotechnology degree should entail. As part of the MNT-EC we are organizing a Business Industry Leadership Team (BILT). The BILT includes industry leaders that work with the MNT-EC to support creation of the Knowledge, Skills and Abilities competencies needed for an MNT degree. By engaging industry directly and having them be an active partner in center activities we will create a community that can create standards and programs that address each standard that industry needs competency in.
BC – Sometimes you have to go get their ear and ask them some leading questions. Never go ask them “what does a technician do here?” instead ask them “do your technicians work on the micro or nanoscale?” Or “do your technicians need to understand how materials behave at the micro or nanoscale?” You have to do your research and already know somethings about the company and then help them see where your technicians might be a better fit than hiring a BS, or masters degree to do the same job.
Nanotechnology was heavily hyped when I was in college in the late 90s. People created artistic renderings of tiny robots swimming around people’s bloodstreams and killing cancer cells. Obviously, nanotechnology is still a long way away from that, and I worry that over-promising might have jaded some people toward nanotech. (A friend even advised us to avoid using the word “nanotechnology”, because too many VCs have been burned by startups over-promising in the past.) When reaching out to others, would you say people are more excited or skeptical about nanotech? If the latter, how do you overcome that skepticism?
JA – This is a valid point. I also started in nanotechnology in early 2000 and the amount of grants or programs that used nanotechnology in their proposals was quite high. In many cases, the project or proposal did not really address “nanotechnology” issues. It is imperative that we define what nanotechnology is and what it is not. It is not a magic pill that will solve every science problem. There is not going to be a nano-based drug that cures cancer. However, like all science and technology, nanotechnology has applications in several industries. There will be future nano-based drugs, semiconductors utilize nano-based applications, materials science consists of nanotechnology materials. Increasing the knowledge of faculty, industry leaders and especially students what the foundation of nanotechnology is will lead to a better understanding of that opportunities are available in the field. We can use examples, such as an elevator to the moon and the targeted nano cancer therapy as our nano fantasies to increase student interest and engagement. At the same time, we can also show students how to use a scanning electron or atomic force microscope, how to do photolithography, or developing a Micro Electro Mechanical Sensor (MEMS) device and educate them on how they work. These are also exciting aspects of nanotechnology that are currently being used today. There are trillions of MEMS devices in society in all sorts of applications. MEMS alone is a $100 billion dollar a year business by 2024.
BC – Nanotechnology is an enabling technology that touches everything from food packaging and flavoring to cosmetics and textiles. It is literally found in just about everything these days. Got a scratch on your car – nanotechnology, need a heart stint – nanotechnology, want stain free pants – nanotechnology, need a better sunscreen – nanotechnology, want your food to stay fresh longer – nanotechnology, want your windshield to stop fogging up – nanotechnology. I think once people realize it’s a means rather than an end, they will get more comfortable with it. Also – the more connected people become the more they need to realize that micro and nanotechnology make that possible. Also realize that tiny nanobots taking over the world and turning everything into gray goo is really not going to happen.
Let’s say I run a small micro/nanotechnology company, and I have a need for technicians. Are there partnership opportunities with MNT-EC, and if so how should I reach out?
JA – We are always looking and excited to form partnerships with all MNT companies. There are several options. You can join our Business Industry Leadership Team (BILT). We have an industry working group that meets monthly to discuss MNT education and workforce needs. You can join either of these groups. We can be reached at email@example.com or e-mail Jared Ashcroft at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BC – Definitely email us –
Last question: If you had to hire a nanobot to do a job for you, what job would you hire it to do?
JA – If I could create a nanobot to embed in my brain that could make me always swing a golf club the same way over and over again I would be in heaven. Maybe on my backswing if I do it wrong a small shock comes to my arms and fixes the swing. Maybe I could start hitting long drives that are actually straight. This needs to be done. I will get my team on it right away.
BC – If I could hire a nanobot to do a job for me I would hire one that would take meeting minutes for all my meetings, so I don’t have to. That’s the least favorite part about my job. Of course it would take forever for a nanobot to write all those notes so maybe I should just keep doing them myself and have the nanobot keep my coffee hot.
Jared and Billie, thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts with us, and good luck preparing the next generation of nano/microtechnology scientists!
We received some nice feedback on our Do Atoms Really Exist? educational kit. High school senior Kristen S. says,
“...wanted to update you on our progress and to inform you of the ridiculous excitement that I felt when we saw the wiggling particles.”
Sean Robinson, the Associate Director of MIT's Physics Junior Lab said,
“Oh, that’s a cool idea!”
With our first educational kit deployed, we're already working on our second. This one will be a small app that allows students to virtually run Millikan's oil drop experiment.
Modeled after a version of the experiment I did in MIT's Physics Junior Lab, Millikan's oil drop is a classic Nobel Prize-winning experiment. It should really be called, "How to MacGyver Your Way into a Major Scientific Discovery". Using some oil, a spray bottle, a couple metal plates, and a power supply, Millikan made the first measurement of an electron's charge and mass. Our version allows you to run the experiment virtually:
In this virtual experiment, you spray oil droplets into a metal chamber and try to measure their net charge. Once in a while, a droplet picks up or loses an extra electron. By charging the bottom plate with many "like" charges, you can push the charged oil droplet upward. If there's not enough charge on the bottom plate, the oil droplet will fall under the influence of gravity. With just enough charge, the oil droplet will levitate. By measuring the voltage at which the oil droplet levitates, you can determine the charge and mass of an electron.
We're looking educators and students to beta test our Millikan oil drop game. Are you a teacher looking for a fun virtual activity to try with your students? Are you the parent of a science-loving 14-18 year old? If so, contact us and we'll send you a free copy to test. We'd love to receive your feedback, so we can make this an educational experience all students will love.
That's all for now. Check back for regular updates as DNP123 pursues its mission of making nanotech affordable and easy enough for anyone to use.
Who's it for? Do you know a motivated student who wants to learn more than they're getting out of their science class? How about a teacher looking to introduce more engaging course material? If so, our kits are for them. Different kits target different ages ranging from middle school through college. Our first kit is designed for late high school or college students, though particularly bright junior high students may also benefit. If you know a teacher or student who might be interested, send them a link to our first kit, Do Atoms Really Exist?
What kind of kits do you make? All of our kits are focused on some aspect of nanotechnology. This could involve:
Are all kits virtual? With many areas struggling to contain COVID-19, we're making the first few kits virtual. Our first kit can be done all online. Teachers can defeat "Zoom fatigue" with engaging content as students safely conduct labs remotely. In addition to providing a good solution for pandemic times, virtual kits helps us keep costs down, so schools can afford them. All proceeds from these kits support DNP123's operations and research, which enables us to develop high quality nanotechnologies for both education and research.
While virtual kits have advantages, we know nothing can replace the tactile experience of actually being in lab. We're in the process of designing real experimental kits that can be done in a school or home lab. We're starting pilots of these experimental kits with a handful of schools soon.
How does it work? Find the virtual kit Do Atoms Really Exists? in the DNP123 Store. After purchasing the kit, download the electronic lab manual, problems and solutions, experiment and simulation videos, and 500 microscope images of real data. Learn motion capture analysis and track how tiny microparticles move. Use this to verify the existence of the even tinier atoms that push them around. Teachers can purchase the lab once and share it with their students.
It doesn't stop there! We want to work with you to make your classes engaging. Are there topics in science, mathematics, computers, or engineering in which you'd like to incorporate nanotechnology? If so, contact us and let us know what you're looking to do. If there's a good fit, we can help develop content that will keep your students eager to learn more and pursue STEM careers.
What if my school doesn't have money for a virtual kit? We don't want to leave financially disadvantaged schools behind. If your school would like to try one of our virtual kits, let us know through our contact page. We're happy to provide free copies of virtual kits in exchange for feedback that will help us improve future versions.
What's next? We're putting together more content for STEM classes, so check back every few weeks and see what's new. If you'd like regular updates, let us know and we'll add you to our mailing list. If you sign up, we'll send you a free PDF copy of the Do Atoms Really Exists? instruction manual.
We look forward to working with you to bring nanotechnologies from fantasy to reality!
DNP123 just completed its first Nanotech Design Competition. Teams were asked to design on paper a tool that can determine whether a given sample contains monomeric or oligomeric proteins, i.e. do the proteins show up one at a time or are they clumped together in a bunch. Differentiating between different protein forms is important, as certain forms can act as early warning signs for diseases.
We had many good entries. The majority of participants came up with a design solution that could at least feasibly be used to distinguish different types of proteins. This demonstrates a fact we hold dear at DNP123:
Anyone, even high school students who don’t yet have a ton of experience, can make meaningful contributions to state of the art nanotechnology, if they are given affordable, easy-to-use tools.
I’m happy to say that we had not one, but two winning teams. In no particular order, they are…
Winner 1: “Monomer/Oligomer Distinction Using Antibodies and Light Wavelength Measurement”
Team: Caleb Belden, Jonathan Percy, Evan Voogd from Norwalk High School.
This team designed a systems of nanocubes coated with antibodies that would bind to the proteins. The number of proteins bound would effectively change the radius of the particle, which they predicted could be detected using
Winner 2: “Separation of Monomer and Oligomers Through Magnetic Nanoparticles”
Team 2: Casey Spiess, Jose Cordova, Ryan Rafferty, and Mitchell Wood from Waukee Aspiring Professional Experience (APEX)
This team designed a nanoparticle crystal structure that contained gaps of a certain size. The gap size was just large enough to fit the monomeric form of the protein, but was too small to fit the oligomeric form. After trapping monomeric proteins in the crystal, they could extract them from solution by pulling the magnetic nanoparticle crystal out with a magnet. They could then detect any remaining oligomeric proteins using a variety of suitable techniques.
Congratulations to our winners! You’ll be receiving Amazon gift cards for your efforts.
 For example, check out this video to see how different forms of the protein amyloid beta are associated with Alzheimer’s disease.