What's in your iPod might be in your liver

March 3, 2010

When Arizona State University researchers talk about the nanorevolution, they mean more than something limited to the technological realm.

The manufacture, manipulation and use of materials at the nanoscale – at atomic or molecular levels – have implications far beyond science and engineering labs. Download Full Image

Nanomaterials are already in hundreds of commercial products, in our environment   and possibly in our bodies. Researchers are studying whether nanoparticles might be making their way into our kidneys, livers and brains.

The emerging pervasiveness of nanotechnology means “it will increasingly have health, environmental, social, political and economic implications, and raise ethical issues,” says Jonathan Posner, an assistant professor of mechanical and chemical engineering in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Nanotechnology is at the leading edge of science and engineering today, and its development – predominantly in engineering and physical science labs – is being largely funded by federal agencies, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Posner says the rapid pace of nanotechnology advances makes it all the more urgent to consider the possible widespread societal and environmental impacts.

Far-reaching impacts

The Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University (CNS-ASU) and ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes (CSPO) are among national leaders in exploring the potential ramifications of nanotechnology’s emergence. They are working with scientists and engineers such as Posner to encourage researchers to consider the big-picture perspective. 

“There is a pressing need to understand the impact of nanotechnology on human health, the environment and society, to give us an informed background from which we can craft government policy and regulation, as well as legal and ethical guidelines,” Posner says.

One of Posner’s NSF-funded projects is examining health-related questions about the toxicity of engineered nanomaterials. Such nanoparticles remain largely unregulated because of a lack of data about toxicity risks.

Another project focuses on synthetic nanoscale motors and their potential for improving development of nanomachines. Researchers are seeking to understand the physical mechanisms that govern the motion of nanomachines.

They want to devise methods of producing faster and more powerful nanomotors, and to fabricate nanomotors that can serve a broad range of needs, from more effective application of medicinal drugs and environmental remediation to more accurate chemical and biological analyses.

Both projects involve efforts to encourage students to consider the broader implications of their research by examining the potential societal impacts of nanotechnology advances.

“This is about going beyond the merely technological challenges and getting students to think about what difference – good, bad or neutral – that they’ll make in the world by pursuing this work in their careers,” Posner says.

Exploring societal dimensions

Under the umbrella of CNS and CSPO, Posner is working with ASU colleagues to develop a course entitled Societal and Ethical Implications of Scientific Research, which examines nanotechnology issues. His collaborators, Jameson Wetmore, an assistant professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, and Ira Bennett, an associate research professor with CSPO, have also developed Science Outside the Lab, a workshop on science policy and culture to be held in the nation’s capitol.  Posner is encouraging his students to participate in the workshop.

David Guston, CNS-ASU director and CSPO co-director, says Posner’s “openness to collaborations that explore the societal dimensions of his own research in nanotechnology is characteristic of the intellectual fusion that ASU hopes to foster through its concept of the New American University.”

That fusion “is emblematic of a new generation of thinking among scientists and engineers that embraces approaches from the social sciences and humanities,” says Guston, who also is a professor of political science in ASU’s School of Government, Politics and Global Studies.

A nanotechnology future

Scientists and engineers are experimenting with nanomaterials that can propel themselves, harvest energy from their immediate environments, and transport materials 30 times their size.

Such capabilities could be put to use cleaning up pollution in the oceans, transporting medicine in the body to help fight cancer, vastly increasing the power and performance of electronic devices, or better harnessing solar power.

“There are some ‘Star Trek’ concepts that are quickly becoming reality through the use of nanotechnology,” Posner says, but there are also “potential negative implications of the nanotechnology future” that now confront us in the form of unanswered questions about the impacts of introducing more engineered nanomaterials into the ecosystems that sustain us.

“Our goal is to ensure our faculty and students integrate an examination of these questions and potential impacts into their studies and research,” Posner says.

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


Meteors and helices promote community

March 3, 2010

Turning the pages of her weekly planner, long dark hair framing her face, Ellen Dupont flips backward from one ink-covered page to the next – the past scripted, with no white space left.

Dupont looks for reference to the Leonid meteor shower that took place in the early Tuesday morning of Nov. 17. Why this is important relates to why everything in this planner is important. Download Full Image

Each hash-marked entry, day and hour represents an adventure, a learning experience, a success or something more – something unexpected.

“ASU has been an unexpectedly amazing experience for me,” said Dupont, a National Merit Scholar and Barrett Honors College senior majoring in biology and society, with a minor in psychology.

“I originally came here based on a scholarship,” she said. “What I found was the Center for Biology and Society.”

ASU’s Center for Biology and Society, or CBS as it is fondly called, was approved by the Arizona Board of Regents in 2004. It is the brainchild of Jane Maienschein, a Regents’ and President’s Professor of history and philosophy of science in the School of Life Sciences. Dupont discovered the group her sophomore year, after taking a “Science and Society” course with Andrew Hamilton, assistant professor in the School of Life Sciences. She loved Hamilton’s teaching and the topics. 

“I talk about the center [Center for Biology and Society] like it’s the center of the universe,” Dupont said. “But it really is the center of my universe. Some of my best friends are the graduate students there. It simply feels like home.”

The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ center has become a nexus for Dupont’s mentorship, rounds of thesis decisions and a jumping-off point for adventure. Dupont pursued a summer project in southern India teaching AIDS awareness in slums, orphanages and high schools with the International Alliance for Prevention of AIDS (IAPA). The following year, supported by Maienschein, Hamilton and funding from the School of Life Sciences Undergraduate Research program (SOLUR), Dupont pursued an internship in Washington, D.C., at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in the Science and Human Rights Program. While there, she conducted database searches and country reports, and developed reference documents for a meeting of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Though Dupont’s first interests in science came from wanting to be Sydney Bristow in the “Alias” television show, her ASU studies have focused on institutionalized discrimination and how “we view the ‘other.’” 

Her thesis research examines a period when scientists invested in sciences, such as phrenology, which equated physical characters and racial difference to estimations of intelligence. Dupont believes such sciences subtly legitimized Europeans’ views on paternalism, the rending of the African continent and the degradation of its peoples.

She presented a poster on this topic at the AAAS meeting in San Diego, Calif., Feb. 20 titled “Quantifying the Dark Continent: 19th  Century Colonialism and the Science of Race.”

“It’s a fascinating story about a period in time and speaks to how science and policy inform each other,” Dupont said. “The relationship between society, culture, science and policy is tangled and complex. I’m having a lot of fun.”

Dupont will do another poster session March 26 for the School of Life Sciences’ 17th annual undergraduate research poster symposium, where Peter J. Bruns, vice president for grants and special programs with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, will speak about “what’s special about studying biology now?”

What’s special to Dupont, she tries to pass along. She duct-tapes favorite candies to the office doors of biology and society master’s students Katherine Liu and Cera Lawrence and doctoral student Mark Ulett, as “thank-yous” for critiquing her honors thesis. She serves as student ambassador in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, working on the one-day “Devils in Disguise” event that puts 650 students into the community.

Dupont also tutors at the Writing Center at ASU.

“Writing is critical to everything,” she said. “I geek out really hard when I see another student’s well-crafted thesis statement.”

A feeling which clearly explains her activity, as a board member, writer, associate editor and podcaster, with ASU’s chapter of The Triple Helix, an international non-profit that promotes undergraduate journalism around policy, business, law and science in society.

“Finding the Center for Biology and Society is probably the best thing that could have happened to me,” Said Dupont, who graduates this May. “The rhetoric meets reality at ASU. There are so many opportunities here to choose from. This experience has helped guide me toward something that I’m really passionate about.”

Next time the Leonid meteors plummet to earth, the community will have new stars rising in the West. Let’s call them Dupont, Lawrence, Ulett, Liu...

Margaret Coulombe

Director, Executive Communications, Office of the University Provost