"My people have had no problem getting a job."
So says Vicki Colvin, an assistant professor of chemistry at Rice University in Houston. Jim Murday, a physicist at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., concurs: There are plenty of jobs available for scientists working at the interface of biotechnology, nanotechnology, physics, and chemistry. And the existing opportunities are not only in academia. "I see a lot of résumés," Marcel Bruchez, a senior scientist at Quantum Dot Corp., tells Next Wave.
Two areas in particular are driving the interest in this interdisciplinary interface, at which, says Murday, "the lines between biology, chemistry, and physics evaporate." One is molecular medicine and the large dollar amounts that the National Institutes of Health are beginning to invest in nanoscale approaches to human health. (See Katie Cottingham's article in this feature on the status of federal funding for nanobiotechnology.) Another is nanoelectronics and biomolecular computing. (See the articles by Jack Tuszynski and Lila Kari for more information on this topic.)
Even so, it's not all a bed of roses, particularly in industry, where the necessary view toward developing an actual product (as opposed to simply exploring molecules and surfaces) is critical. Indeed, all three scientists interviewed by Next Wave for this article stated that the tools and technological approaches that continue to underpin the revolution in nanotechnology--scanning-tunneling microscopes, atomic force microscopes, and the like--have been difficult to apply to the "soft" surfaces of proteins, nucleic acids, and membranes.
Still, Bruchez, Colvin, and Murday all predict strong job growth for the foreseeable future. Initially, they think, this growth is likely to occur in academic and government research labs, which have the facilities, funding, and long-term perspective necessary to tackle the more basic questions in the field. But as companies begin to develop products--and Colvin sees this happening first with bioanalytical devices, such as nanoscale objects that tag DNA and proteins--the number of job opportunities in industry is bound to increase markedly.
Industry is currently hiring. But, says Bruchez, most new hires come either from networking contacts in the established research labs or without specific "nanobiotechnology" credentials. Instead, says Bruchez, the nascent nanobio industry is looking first for individuals with "good rigorous scientific training." Specific technical skills are lower down the list, but, says Bruchez, most industrial scientists in this area are excellent empirical researchers who are not afraid to explore new disciplines and learn new tools.
And where do these scientists receive their training? A growing number of research centers are being established at U.S. universities (some are listed on the feature's Resource page), and these will undoubtedly become an important engine for training and innovation. But according to Colvin and Murday, most people currently entering nanobiotech labs have backgrounds in chemistry, physics, and/or biology. Like Colvin, most will be drawn to the field by its fundamentally interdisciplinary nature and by the opportunity to explore at the nanometer scale "the resonance between biomolecules and nanomaterials."