The Big Impact of Small-Scale Science: Rein Ulijn on The Thought Project

The Graduate Center, CUNY · The Big Impact of Small-Scale Science: Rein Ulijn on The Thought Project

From the transistors in the iPhone 12 to coronavirus vaccines, nanotechnology surrounds us. Recently, The Thought Project caught up with Rein Ulijn, director of the Nanoscience Initiative at the Advanced Science Research Center at The Graduate Center (ASRC) and Einstein Professor of Chemistry at The Graduate Center and Hunter College, to talk about the impact of nanoscience — which involves studying and manipulating structures and materials at a scale of one millionth of a millimeter, or the size of atoms and molecules — on education, workforce development, and our daily lives.
During our conversation, Ulijn also shared exciting news about the New York State-funded Center for Advanced Technology (ASRC Sensor CAT), which is now situated at the ASRC following a highly competitive bidding process between multiple New York State–based academic institutions. Under Ulijn’s direction, the ASRC Sensor CAT is spurring development of new sensor technologies to address human and environmental health, promoting closer ties between academic research and industry, and helping students prepare for STEM jobs.
Check out a shortened, edited version of Ulijn’s interview with The Thought Project’s hosts Tanya Domi and Shawn Rhea below, and listen to the podcast to hear the full conversation.
Shawn Rhea: So, Rein, maybe a good place for us to start would be giving our listeners an understanding of your field of science. Can you give us a quick layman's primer on what exactly is meant when we talk about materials and the scale at which you work?
Rein Ulijn: Yes, absolutely. Thank you for that question. Nanoscience is actually everywhere right now. It's touching upon our everyday lives, let's give you two quick examples: the iPhone 12 has nanoscale transistors. These are tiny transistors that enabled these phones to work incredibly fast, to be incredibly powerful. And, perhaps more topical, the coronavirus vaccines are actually nanoscale particles made up of a biological code — the functional piece — that is embedded within a lipid particle, which enables that code to be delivered where it's needed in the body to allow the body to become immune.
Where this field of science is very different from something like chemistry or biology or physics is that the connecting aspect (of nanoscience) is a size range — a size range where interesting physics happens and where biology becomes functional. It’s a size range that's hard to engineer, but where you can get really interesting new properties out of materials.
Shawn Rhea: So that's really interesting and I think for many of us lay people, it totally redefines how we think of materials, right? We typically tend to think of it as very tactile things, but you're working at a much smaller scale and the materials could literally be a particle that we typically think of coming in liquid form or particle that we typically think of coming in a hard form.
Rein Ulijn: You have basically the entire range of those properties available. Of course, you can't see these things with the naked eye, but another feature of this is that it translates across lens scales. So events that happen at the nanoscale where you can't see them ultimately translate into events that happen at the microscopic scale. It's very much about not just engineering on the nanoscale, but also understanding how it impacts on things that happen in our everyday lives around us.
Shawn Rhea: Maybe we can shift gears a little bit now and talk about the ASRC Sensor CAT or the Center for Advanced Technology, which we're really excited about here at The Graduate Center. From what I've learned about the CAT, it's focused on developing sensor technologies that have a broad range of uses things such as monitoring the environment or as components in medical devices, or even as a way of automating some aspects of manufacturing. And this all really sounds like the next level of smart technology. How has the ASRC Sensor CAT been enabling this work in New York City and the state?
Rein Ulijn: We're super excited to have the Center for Advanced Technologies at the ASRC. As you mentioned, sensor technology touches upon many areas, medical devices, environmental sensing, and it's booming.
You're probably wearing some sensor technology right now. (Like) smartwatches, and these are becoming smarter and smarter, right? So they can give us more and more information about us and our environments. And it's not just people, we want to know what happens in the city. We want to know how our environments impact our health on as many levels as possible and get sensors also to talk to each other and really give a full picture of what goes on in our environment. So it's booming. It's also getting increasingly complex.

I mean, there's all these great ideas out there, but if you want to develop a new sensor technology, you need access to high-end facilities, and the Advanced Science Research Center is exactly a hub for this type of stuff. We have 15 core facilities that are highly specialized and are exactly there to allow for high-end experiments to be performed. So many small companies don't have access to that type of equipment. And that's where the CAT comes in. The CAT can give these companies grants to come and work in the facilities. And this may sometimes be just access to the facilities, but it could also be working with the CUNY professor who happens to be an expert in one of the areas (the company) want(s) to get involved with. So we have a fantastic ecosystem within CUNY, a very large number of very smart people who work on technology that is often relevant to sensors. And within the ASRC itself, you have these core facilities, but also experts in biomedicine, experts in environmental science. Within one building you can develop and test sensor technology.
We also spend a lot of time on workforce development and basically getting our students much more savvy about entrepreneurship, not just being a STEM researcher and inventing something new, but also understanding how this might impact the city, or society and how it might also provide economic impact. So forming a company, licensing the technology — all of that. It's becoming a much more seamless system of innovation and application. We hope that it can help to trigger a boom in sensor development in New York City.
Shawn Rhea: Yeah, that's really interesting. And we know that one of the [CUNY] chancellor's main focuses is on workforce development. It sounds like this really kind of fits right in with some of those major priorities.
Rein Ulijn: I completely agree. I just wanted to add that especially in STEM, there is a lot of development needed there. Workforce development is big in CUNY already, but in STEM, there are now some really, really exciting opportunities to get our students to think more entrepreneurially, to form companies to help with the post-pandemic recovery.
Shawn Rhea: I know that CAT was launched just a little less than a year ago on the heels of COVID. And the first request for funding proposals was last April in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. So maybe you can tell us a little bit about the aims of that call and I guess more excitingly about some of the companies that you've been able to work with.
Rein Ulijn: We could see that companies were struggling to think about what to do next. And we really felt that the CAT could maybe play a role there. Companies turned out to be very agile in trying to find ways in which they could repurpose their technology to potentially address some aspects of the COVID crisis. So we had this call where we asked small companies to come up with ways of which they could pivot essentially their technology to help with the COVID pandemic.
We had a lot of interest from a number of companies, and it's varied from things like re-purposing a technology that was previously developed for Zika virus detection. Re-purposing that for the coronavirus detection, we had other technologies that focused on self-cleaning surfaces.
We had also a company that's developing spectroscopy to do diagnostics. And again, now pivoting to detect the virus. I think it's helped in a number of ways because as the city closed down, we could still keep some of our activities open for COVID-specific research. It's helped with the recovery, but it's also helped these companies to be able to continue their work. And it told us a lot about how agile these companies can be. And the response was really quite phenomenal at that time. So it was in the end, a very interesting way to get the CAT launched.
Shawn Rhea: Why do you think CUNY is such a great fit for a workforce development partnership with the state in the sciences?
Rein Ulijn: CUNY is really New York City's workforce development machine. If you think about it, most CUNY students are locals, and my understanding is that about 80% of them actually end up working in the city. So they really are the workforce. And what we are hearing from some larger companies or smaller companies is that the CUNY product is great, but they're not always ready to join the workforce. And that's basically what we're trying to do, try to meet these companies a little bit earlier.
That's not just us trying to train our students to become more entrepreneurship savvy or industry aware, but also bring the companies in to help us to make our students more ready. At the moment, actually, we're developing a new course together with colleagues from Baruch and the business school within The Graduate Center to do a joint science and entrepreneurship course, that is actually an extremely good match, and there’s a lot of interest from science and engineering students to learn how this would work, because we're really good at prepping them for careers in academia but the reality is that nine out of 10 don't end up in academia.
Tanya Domi: So, you've been able to partner with outreach programs and core laboratories at the ASRC to begin offering career-track and skills training opportunities to not only graduate students, but also undergrads and even high school students. Can you tell us about that project and how exciting that is for the city and for CUNY in particular?
Rein Ulijn: What I've certainly learned is that young people who are good at science often end up thinking about medical school first as a really good application of science, and I'm absolutely not saying that that isn't a great trajectory for a young person who likes science, but it's not always understood that being a scientist can be very interesting and important and fulfilling career. And especially if you combine it with entrepreneurship, I mean, there's nothing greater than inventing something and then starting a company and seeing this whole thing develop. I mean, and I think that awareness is not always there. So that's something that we want to catch students’ interest early. That's why we have also a focus on high school.
We work with Kendra Krueger and Ricardo Toledo-Crow, colleagues in the ASRC, to develop what they call a citizen's science sensor lab. And what that is, is basically you can build quite simple sensors that give you information about your environment. For example, a carbon dioxide sensor that can be built at home from simple components, and actually allow you to do measurements that will tell you something about your environment.
The CAT is able to co-fund some of this. At other levels we do for undergraduates, we do a lot of matchmaking. There are a lot of opportunities for placements or secondments to industry. And we play a role there in matchmaking, like finding the right companies, finding the students who can basically do these projects, have those interests. And then at the graduate level, we do a lot of training. So basically, skills training that make the students more attractive to industry. It's really a whole raft of training opportunities that range all the way from high school to our community colleges, four-year colleges, and grad school.

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Submitted on: MAR 25, 2021

Category: Faculty | General GC News | Nanoscience | The Thought Project