I have had several discussions with my Dad regarding why my work, and much of VTSuN, is housed in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. Typically the conversation revolves around using the term environmental because we are in agreement that I ‘do’ engineering. He is not alone; many people have given me a puzzled look when I explain my research and tell them I am in the Environmental Engineering Department.
I have been working to deconstruct the term because I know it will help me become a better communicator in my subject area. This post will walk us through how I think about nano research and environmental engineering. I will set up my dialogue as an interview between me (M) and a public with a technical bent (P).
(P) What is your research focus?
(M) I work on nano-enabled pathogen detection. Recently, the work has focused on paper based sensor development; think “pregnancy test”.
The follow up to this question often takes the following form:
(P) That’s pretty cool; How does that have to do with nano?; what department are you in?
(M) My research is pretty cool! We use nanoparticles to send and/or enhance a signal. Nanomaterials are on the same size scale or smaller than pathogens which is why they have been embraced for new detection methods. I work in the Environmental Engineering Department.
(P) How is that environmental engineering? Shouldn’t that be bio-engineering?
(M) The focus of the research is on how to detect pathogens in drinking water, waste water, and the air. We are interested in naturally occurring systems and term this “the environment”. If we were in bio-engineering, our focus would be modifying pathogens to achieve a specific end.
(P) What about using nanoparticles for cancer? Do you do that?
I actually got this question a few times at TEDx.
(M) Nano-enabled therapies for cancer have been explored and are a whole area of research. However, the work in our lab focuses on naturally occurring systems and how to detect dangers and contaminants in these systems. Much of the pathogen detection focuses on detecting the bacteria/virus/toxin before it enters the body and causes illness.