Once touted as wonderful applications of modern technology, there is growing concern about the environmental impact of silver nanoparticles — microscopic bits of metal that are used in a variety of medical applications and consumer products. Scientists are worried about their potential to enter the water supply and penetrate human tissue.
If the nanoparticles do turn out to be harmful, Nian Du, a graduate student at Binghamton University, plans to be ready with a substance that can detect and filter nanoparticles.
Du’s research is funded by a fellowship called the IGERT, or Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship. IGERT is the National Science Foundation's flagship interdisciplinary training program. The idea behind IGERT is that collaborative research that transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries and requires teamwork provides students with the tools to become science and engineering leaders of the future.
Meanwhile, IGERT fellow Leo Zheng is designing a flexible sensor that can be used to detect undesirable bacteria in places such as public water supply piping. Although Zheng and Du work independently on their research, they aren’t working alone. Along with the IGERT fellows from Cornell and the Wadsworth Center, they take a myriad of classes, from analytical chemistry and biology to materials science and marketing.
As a key aspect of the program, IGERT fellows from disciplines as diverse as chemistry, biophysics, mechanical engineering and neuroscience gather for seminars and webinars to discuss their research and exchange ideas. Diversity among the students contributes to their preparation to solve large and complex research problems of significant scientific and societal importance at the national and international level.
The program’s interdisciplinary nature makes her current research more effective, Du said. “I will have a broader background than others when I graduate,” she added, “and this will give me more preparation for all kinds of jobs.”
IGERT fellows are also learning to collaborate on a global scale through international internships. Giving students the opportunity to interact with people from different cultures is important and will be more so in the future as the world of science trends toward multi-institutional and multidisciplinary collaboration.
The IGERT has helped Binghamton to develop partnerships across the nation. These collaborations have infused the university with new and different viewpoints.