Big Science on a Small Scale: Working in Nanotechnology

To Gino DiLabio (pictured left), nanotechnology seemed like the stuff of science fiction when he was studying chemistry at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York. "While I was doing my studies, I never heard of nanotechnology other than in the context of the science-fiction realm," says DiLabio, who now works in Edmonton's growing nanotechnology hub. "It was only a short time ago that I really came to realize that I now actually work in this exciting field."

Seven years out from his Ph.D. studies, this up-and-coming nanotechnologist conducts research at the Molecular Scale Devices Group at the National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT), which is located on the University of Alberta campus. He is part of a team of researchers that recently announced the development of the world's tiniest transistor. Able to drive electrical current through a single molecule, this nanoscale device is visible only with high-powered microscopes; it is 1000 times smaller than conventional transistors. DiLabio and his group believe the device could pave the way for the next generation of electronic miniaturization in everything from computers to medicine.

A Solid Foundation

After completing his undergraduate degree at Carleton University in Ottawa, DiLabio went to Clarkson to pursue a Ph.D. in computational chemistry. His research focused on relativistic effects in molecules containing heavy atoms. After finishing his studies in 1998, he began searching for postdoc positions and other opportunities within government and industry. While waiting for the right job to come along, he found work within the university, teaching classes and writing papers based on his Ph.D. research. Then he decided to "switch gears completely and try something new." So he began a transition to chemical biology.

In 2001, DiLabio went back to his hometown and took up a post as a research associate in antioxidant chemistry at the National Research Council's Steacie Institute for Molecular Sciences (SIMS) in Ottawa. "Being trained as a computational chemist, I thought it would be interesting to apply the techniques I had learned up until then to elucidating chemistry associated with antioxidants and designing new antioxidants." He credits his success in nanotechnology to the "fantastic and exciting science" he was surrounded by at SIMS.

While at SIMS, DiLabio joined forces with a nanotechnology research group down the hall. Led by physicist Robert Wolkow, the nano team was creating nanostructures on silicone surfaces that were based on organic molecules.

Canada's Prime Minister Paul Martin (right) tours NINT.

Although he had no way of realizing it at first, there was a close connection between this work and his antioxidant work. "Turns out the mechanism by which these organic molecules grow these nanostructures is a radical-mediated mechanism," explains DiLabio. "So we started a collaboration because it was a natural fit."

DiLabio's career was heading in an exciting new direction, and the working conditions were good, with better pay than a postdoc and with a complete benefits package. DiLabio was content at SIMS, but he knew the job would not last--his position would only be renewable for 3 years. In November 2003, just as DiLabio was starting the hunt for a new position, he was asked by his newfound collaborators to join them as they relocated out west at the newly established NINT. While he found competitive opportunities, he couldn't pass up the chance to get in on the ground level of a brand-new institute. "It gave [me] the opportunity to be able to contribute to how the institute was going to be shaped and the kind of policies that were put in place," says DiLabio.

DiLabio is now a staff scientist at the NRC-run research facility, still collaborating with Wolkow's team. "While I wasn't working for this or even hoping for it, I love coming to work day in and day out. It's really fun to be on the cutting edge of science."

Melting Pot

One of the biggest challenges of working in this high-tech field, DiLabio says, is the multidisciplinary nature of nanotechnology. Scientists with substantially different backgrounds--chemists, physicists, and engineers--come together in nanotech research, with each team member contributing valuable skills. "You tend to see this reflected now with publications. Many have a large author list pulled from many disciplines."

With so many scientific fields coming together, DiLabio says that it might be easy for specialists working within a single discipline to overlook the direct potential applications of their work to nanotechnology. It wasn't until he started at NINT that DiLabio realized that the work he was already doing placed in him the nanotech research arena.

"From a modeling perspective, my work really wasn't that different from what others in the [nanotechnology] field were doing," he points out. "It was just my own perspective that changed, and that's when I realized that my tools can be used in nanotechnology as well."


DiLabio urges early-career researchers who want to pursue this field to keep an open mind, use their imaginations, and always maintain an element of fun. It's not one big party, he admits--working in nanotech is intellectually demanding, and there is always something new to learn--but the work is rewarding, satisfying, and fun.

DiLabio goes on to warn students that because nanotechnology draws from such diverse fields, they should keep their options open while at university. "Students might dismiss a particular course or area of research as being uninteresting, but because nanotechnology is a great melting pot of research, you can't take anything like that for granted. Nanotechnology research requires an understanding of the fundamental behaviour of molecules and the physics associated with electronics.

"Sometimes it certainly feels like science fiction," but not always. As in any field of science, much of each day is spent solving the smaller, technical problems. "This can sometimes make you feel that you are working in a more traditional type of science," explains DiLabio. "But there are times when we look at the fantastical developments that we or our colleagues are doing and can't help but say, 'Wow, now that's really cool!' "

Check out Next Wave's profile article on Canada's National Institute for Nanotechnology.

Andrew Fazekas is the Canadian Correspondent for Next Wave and may be reached at

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