To achieve its goal, the center will focus on a seemingly mundane element: water.
Researchers at the new Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology will use their knowledge of how nanometer-sized materials interact with water--the most abundant solvent on the planet and the medium of all life--to develop new medical therapies and solve persistent problems in environmental engineering.
The Rice center, one of six major Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers funded by the National Science Foundation, is the first to focus on applications of nanoscience to biology and the environment. The $10.5 million grant will enable educational and industrial outreach activities in addition to research. The other grant recipients include Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Northwestern and Renssalaer Polytechnic.
"Our goal is to shape nanoscience into a discipline with the relevance, triumphs, and vitality of a modern-day polymer science -- into something that people use every day," stated Vicki Colvin, associate professor of chemistry at Rice and co-director of the center. "This not only requires nanoscientists to look outside their own field, but for research leaders in other fields to look for ways to apply nanoscience to their own problems," she said. "Our center will serve as a hub for such collaboration and as a resource for educating the public about nanotechnology."
Research activities will emphasize the interface between nanomaterials and water-based systems, ranging in size from biomolecules and cells to whole-organisms and the surrounding environment. This "wet/dry" interface is key to applications in medicine and environmental engineering. Gold nanoshells injected into cancer cells, for instance, are currently being tested as a cancer therapy. A likely environmental application of nanomaterials is wastewater treatment; nanostructured materials should make efficient filtration systems.
The center has attracted a breadth of expertise in all three of the areas under its research umbrella. In addition to Colvin, Richard E. Smalley, the Gene and Norman Hackerman Professor of Chemistry and professor of physics at Rice, will direct the center's long-range vision. Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of fullerenes and is currently the director of Rice's Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology. Mark Wiesner, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of Rice's Energy and Environmental Systems Institute, will lead the new center's environmental research arm, and Jennifer West, associate professor of bioengineering, will lead its biological component.
In a three-pronged approach, educational and industrial outreach programs at the center will complement research activities. The centerpiece is an initiative to train ninth-grade Houston Independent School District teachers in the challenging discovery-based teaching style so important to science education. The programs also include curriculum and textbook development and funds to support summer undergraduate research.
The center's industrial component includes a partnership with Rice's Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Management. This program will encourage the transfer of center technology to startup ventures by bringing together scientists, students, and business experts interested in nanoscience applications.
"The pages of Science magazine, Scientific American, as well as highly regarded non-science journals such as The Economist continue to be full of news on nanoscale science and nanotechnology," said Malcolm Gillis, president of Rice University. "In recent weeks alone, numerous nanotechnology articles have appeared citing superconductivity of Buckyballs, single molecular computer switches, golden nanoshells in treating cancer, and the growing list of useful properties of carbon nanotubes in computing, biomedicine and materials.
"Rice is proud to be the home of nearly 40 scientists and engineers working in nanoscale teaching and research and the new Center for Biological and Environmental Technology."
Nanoscale science, engineering and technology are focused on a scale ranging from the size of individual atoms to that of large molecules.