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A Nano Expert

Sharmila Mitra Mukhopadhyay explores the immense possibilities offered by nanotechnology.


There’s an unprecedented interest among scientists in the study of a world so small that we can’t see it even with a simple microscope. This is the world of nanotechnology, and one such scientist is Sharmila Mitra Mukhopadhyay.

Mukhopadhyay is a professor of materials science and engineering and director of the Center for Nanoscale Multifunctional Materials at Wright State University in Ohio. Her current research areas include multifunctional nanomaterials; compact lightweight components for energy, environment and biomedical applications; surface and interface science; and multidisciplinary engineering science. She has received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in science from the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, and Ph.D. from Cornell University, New York.

STEM education can be one of the biggest tools to boost confidence and balanced thinking among younger women, and to groom them into becoming productive citizens. A strong foundation in STEM helps with analytical thinking and balanced decisions in all areas of life.

Mukhopadhyay is a strong believer in the power of STEM education, especially of women, to bring about a change in society. STEM is the acronym for the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Excerpts from an interview.

 

Why is nanotechnology such an important field of research today?
Nanotechnology involves science and engineering of materials that range in size from 1 to 100 nanometers (nm). To put this in perspective, “nanomaterials” are about 1,000 to 10,000 times thinner than the average human hair. When solids can be fabricated, controlled and manipulated at such length scales, unique devices can be assembled, which are significantly more compact, complex and powerful than what we see today. We may have clothes that monitor body temperature and blood pressure, building paints that degrade diesel fumes, ultra-light cars and airplanes that use minimal power, and so on.

 

What is the practical use of your research field of multifunctional nanomaterials?
The term “multifunctional” is used to describe a material—nanomaterial in this case—that can satisfy multiple functional requirements simultaneously. In traditional technologies, engineers would use one solid for mechanical support, a second component for electronic function, a third to provide power connection, and so on. This would add to bulk, weight and [lead to] energy loss in devices. As we learn to incorporate many properties into the same solid through nanoscale manipulation, we can create smaller, lighter and “smarter” devices. A simple example is the smartphone which combines many devices into one wallet-size package. However, it’s only the tip of the iceberg of wider possibilities.

 

What is your view on STEM education for women?
The topic is very close to my heart. Where would someone like me be without the opportunity for STEM education early in life? My grandmother, who I believe had a sharper mind than mine, perhaps could have contributed much more to society if she had been trained in STEM disciplines.

STEM education can be one of the biggest tools to boost confidence and balanced thinking among younger women, and to groom them into becoming productive citizens. A strong foundation in STEM helps with analytical thinking and balanced decisions in all areas of life. Developing that personality trait and confidence will help not only the women, but also the men in their lives, as well as the society in general.

However, there is still a big gender gap in STEM-related education. Part of this is due to a lack of opportunities and resources, especially among underprivileged sections of society. It may also be due to the universal mind-set that women are more emotional and less intellectually inclined than men. As educators, we see evidence everywhere that a large number of young girls who show scientific talent as children move away from STEM disciplines later in life because it’s not considered feminine or family-life compatible.

 

How did you become interested in the field of nanotechnology?
My academic degrees in Indian Institute of Technology [Kharagpur] and Cornell University were in physics and materials science and engineering, respectively. The term “nanotechnology” was not used then, but a large part of what we did then would be considered nanotech now. Actually, insights developed from traditional science and engineering research have been more recently combined into the interdisciplinary area of nanotechnology. My generation of scientists feels proud to have contributed to that revolution.

 

You were the chair of the Electronics Division of The American Ceramic Society. Could you elaborate on this area of work?
I believe that research is most productive when scientists balance isolated laboratory efforts with idea-exchange, collaborations and outreach. Professional societies play a big role in catalyzing such interactions by creating a bigger picture from individual efforts and by tracking future trends. As my career progressed from a new scientist to a more mature investigator, I devoted considerable time and effort to such societies. One of those was to serve as the chair of the Electronics Division of The American Ceramic Society, which focuses on electronic ceramics. I have also served on the editorial boards of journals, review panels of funding agencies and in multiple nonprofit community organizations.

 

Ranjita Biswas is a Kolkata-based journalist who writes on travel, film, and women and gender issues. She also translates fiction and writes short stories.