I don’t think I’ve ever been this close to a bigger paradox.
It’s a place that has a big name and consists of a big building. But what happens inside involves small things. I mean VERY small things.
Just off Gate City Boulevard in Southeast Greensboro sits the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering (JSNN.) It opened about 10 years ago through an unprecedented collaboration between UNC-Greensboro and North Carolina A&T State University.
Dr. Sherine Obare is the school’s dean. She’s been on the job for about a year.
Her list of accomplishments is long. Here are a few:
- Internationally-recognized chemist
- National Science Foundation Career Award winner
- Named one of the top 25 women professors in the state of Michigan
- A leader in developing strategies to improve STEM education
She’s also lived in several countries. (Her father worked for the United Nations.) She also speaks several languages including English, German and Arabic.
Before I go any further, it’s important you understand what “nano” is. Obare reminded me it’s actually a scale. Just like “micro” is a scale.
“Cells in your body, your blood cells. Those are things that are on the microscale,” she told me when I visited the JSNN recently. “But if you think of the structures that are IN your cells, they’re much smaller than the microscale.”
In other words, they’re REALLY tiny!
And it’s those nanostructures 111 graduate students are targeting, manipulating and even making. All of the students are pursuing master’s or Ph.D. degrees in nanoscience or nanoengineering.
A big focus of the work that happens here (and a big focus of Obare’s own research) involves drug delivery in chemotherapy. Most of us know chemo’s pretty good at killing cancer cells. But it usually comes with steep physical costs. Hair loss and nausea are the ones you hear about most often.
Obare believes in our lifetimes we’ll see chemo that doesn’t produce those side effects.
“If you can design materials that are either the size of the cells or can be targeted specifically to go toward those cancer cells and not the healthy cells, then you’re more likely to minimize the potential side effects,” she said.
The environment’s another big focus at the JSNN.
Obare showed me the largest microscope I’ve ever seen. Specifically, it’s a helium ion microscope and it’s the only one in North Carolina.
It allows researchers to hit or pierce certain materials and create nano-size bumps or dents in them to make them more absorbent. The image the microscope produces on a monitor shows these dents at black spots clustered close together.
“You can also create them (the dents) so that they can trap specific things,” she said.
Just think of how that can help in a hazardous waste spill during which first responders can spread one of these nano-dented materials and specifically absorb the spilled chemical. That would save time, money and — quite possibly — lives.
But in addition to being a scientist, Obare is an administrator. And in this area, there are two big focal points.
One involves opening her field to more people.
“It is a field that definitely has struggled more than others with respect to opening its doors to more women and people of color,” she said. “When I think of my personal experience and opportunities, I think it has taken a few good men to be able to say, ‘I believe in her.’”
It’s among the reasons she and others at the JSNN are helping the students develop what they call “mentorship roadmaps” to help them succeed.
Obare is also passionate about getting young people interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) at an early age.
“The most important thing is passion and a desire to learn,” she said. “I’m one of those who really believes that if you’re willing to learn, you can do anything.”
So she, the faculty and students at the JSNN are working to support and advance a field that specializes in small things with the potential of big results that help and possibly save the lives of a big number of people.
It’s like small and big coming together in a common purpose. Opposites do attract.
For more information on the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering, click here.