Finding a future in science

Cutting-edge careers may be wave of future

Cutting-edge careers may be wave of future

January 20, 2004|by Chris Copley

So you're good at science. You can assemble your own computer. You know the chemical symbol and atomic weight of tin. You can list all 206 bones in the body, or name all the periods of geologic time, or calculate the trajectory of a given mass with a given velocity in a given gravity.

But what kind of career will you find that takes advantage of your scientific skills? Consider these cutting-edge jobs.

Think small, very small

Engineers, chemists, computer hardware designers and other researchers are learning to build ever smaller computers, mechanical systems and transistor gates. Called nanotechnology, this growing area of research focuses on structures measured in nanometers - billionths of a meter, the size of atoms and small molecules.

Researchers are trying to develop microscopically tiny pumps, transistors, cameras, wiring and other devices, according to John Melngailis, University of Maryland electrical engineering professor and nanotechnology fabrication researcher.


Making devices at that level requires new thinking, Meln-gailis said.

"There's ways that natural materials will organize at atomic levels in natural clusters: chemical reactions, magnetism," Melngailis said.

So one approach to nano-technology fabrication is to let nature help. For instance, attach an iron atom to a silicon atom and use magnets to manipulate the iron atom to position the silicon atom where it should go. Or, since molecules have unique shapes, researchers might use tube-shaped or wheel-shaped molecules as parts of a device, assembling them like Tinker Toys. Similarly, the twists and bumps on the surface of DNA strands theoretically can be "read" like a ticker tape.

Another group of nanotechnology researchers are trying to construct quantum computers. The concept of quantum computing, first proposed by University of Maryland professor Bruce Kane, involves storing data in the position and spin of elementary particles of matter. This packs a tremendous amount of information into a speck of matter. The increase in calculating capacity over current technology is phenomenal, Melngailis said.

Theoretically, that is. But there's a problem: "How do you make a device that senses the condition of a single atom?" Melngailis said. "That's tough."

Another area of interest is radio frequency identification. RFID tags are similar to barcodes - an encoded way to identify people or products through digital technology. But barcode scanners must nearly touch the barcode in order to read it. RFID scanners might be 50 or 100 feet away from the RFID tag.

As radio transmitters shrink to nano-scales, possible applications grow: hurrying airline passengers through waiting lines; monitoring people on house arrest; tracking the dispersion of medication in a patient's body; automatically purchasing groceries simply by walking past a scanner at the door of the store.

This is exciting stuff with a variety of applications. Areas of nanotechnology research are diverse, Melngailis said.

"It's not enough to be an electrical engineer, a chemical engineer, a chemist. You got to be all three. Or work with other disciplines," he said.

Let HAL do it for you

Robotics is another brave new world of science. The word "robot" may bring to mind the NASA rover now investigating the surface of Mars or maybe C-3PO or R2-D2 of the "Star Wars" movies.

But many robots have more down-to-Earth jobs. They work in factories.

"They're used especially for repetitive tasks - the same thing over and over and over," said Arnold Hammann, supervisor of career technology and enrichment with Washington County Technical High School in Hagerstown. "There's a lot of reasons for that. They're dependable. They don't have attitudes. They don't wake up with a hangover."

A robot - an automated, mechanical device that performs tasks otherwise performed by humans - can be designed to accomplish a variety of goals: assemble cars, vacuum carpeting, explore the ocean floor, detonate suspected bombs.

Hammann is working with a group of students in Washington County Public Schools on a robotics project organized by NASA. The project is a nationwide competition intended to stimulate creativity in robotics development.

"The engineering-research parts of NASA are driving this," he said. "The very beginning of the generation of rovers now on Mars had its beginning with this."

Hammann related a story told by NASA engineers about a high school student, Colin Engle, who weaseled a summer internship at NASA. The engineers ignored him but gave him some tools and $500 in parts to play with. On the last day of his internship, he showed the NASA professionals what he had designed. Using a remote control toy car, Engle designed a small rover that collected hockey pucks scattered across the floor.

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