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The Size of the Future

A visit with Shubhra Gangopadhyay, Professor, Electrical & Computer Engineering

By Jessica Huang
Published: - Topics: nanotechnology research lab molecules nano particles
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Shubhra Gangopadhyay is one of the few female faculty at MU’s Center for Micro/Nano Systems and Nanotechnology. She’s also the one in charge of developing the center. In the Electrical and Computer Engineering department, of which Gangopadhyay is the LaPierre Endowed Chair Professor, she is one of three women. “There is a shortage of female scientists and female professors, in general,” Gangopadhyay says. “And in engineering, it is really not good.”

This isn’t the first time Gangopadhyay has fought her way to the top in a situation where women aren’t always welcome. Science and math have always interested her, she says, so she pursued higher education in fields not known to be particularly female-friendly. Gangopadhyay is now Co-Director of MU’s Nanotechnology Center, which last year ran projects worth $2.5 million.

Nano means small—really, really small. If you take a hair and divide it 1,000,000 times, that’s nano-scale. Gangopadhyay is experimenting with these nanostructures to create such wonders as a micro-gun that blasts medicine into cancer cells and eyeglasses that won’t fog up. These seemingly magical technologies are possible because the properties of matter change when you get pieces that small.

There are two ways to create these itty-bitty particles, Gangopadhyay says. One, called “bottom up,” starts with molecules and, using them like Legos, assembles them into small structures. The other, “top down,” takes larger-scale structures and breaks them into smaller and smaller pieces until they are nano-sized. MU has the technology to do both.

The Center for Micro/Nano Systems and Nanotechnology is staffed by 25 people who work on projects that will someday revolutionize-–hopefully in an affordable way-–three different areas of our world: sensor technology, which can be used to detect chemical or biological threats; energy harvesting technology, such as solar panels; and computer chips. Gangopadhyay got her start in nanotechnology through the last of these. About 15 years ago, she says, the only way to improve the computer chip was to make it smaller. Soon the scale shifted from micro to nano, and Gangopadhyay found herself immersed in this new science.

She has always been a serious student of science. She grew up in a large family in the small town of Jabalpur, India. Her passion and drive make her a great nanotech scientist, and her lab collaborates with many departments on MU’s campus, colleges across the country, and even the Department of Defense. Plus, Gangopadhyay co-owns NEMS/MEMS Works LLC, with Keshab Gangopadhyay and graduate student Steve Apperson, a company that works with manufacturers to distribute the many products created in her lab. For example, a Department of Defense grant funds two of her projects. One, in collaboration with Luis Polo Parada and Sheila Grant, involves a coating of nano particles that can detect chemical or biological agents. Another is the proprietary application of nanomaterials for various Defense applications.

Yet another project focuses on making flexible electronics using nanomaterials and polymers. Gangopadhyay says this flexible plastic could be used to make pocket televisions or foldable solar panels. She is also working on a coating that is both bulletproof and anti-fog. It will be useful, she says, to create plastic airplane windows that won’t fog or crack.

Of these many products, Gangopadhyay is personally invested in one that involves collaboration with William Folk, Professor of Biochemistry at MU, and Purnendu Dasgupta, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Texas, Arlington. This team is working to develop a small chemical dipstick that will test urine for certain kinds of metabolic activity. This test is important for patients infected with HIV and TB. Similar to how pregnancy tests work, the test would be inexpensive, so it could be distributed to countries where infected people cannot afford to have these tests done routinely. “I feel very good about that project,” she says. “We can do something where we can save human lives.”

Under Gangopadhyay’s supervision, the College of Engineering now has opened a Nano User Facility to all users, whether from academia, industry, or government.

The future looks promising for Gangopadhyay as well. She is in the final stages of developing a nanotechnology enterprise consortium—a large-scale collaboration in which MU and national corporations will work together to create and distribute new nanotechnologies. She hopes this non-profit venture, to be headquartered in Columbia, will generate new jobs.

This latest project, along with the rest of Gangopadhyay’s work, will keep her in Columbia into the foreseeable future, a city whose climate reminds her of India. When she was first invited to come here, Gangopadhyay was unsure about making the move. “I said, ‘Why should I come here? I don’t even know how to spell Missouri,’” she recalls. But the beauty of the place and the opportunity to make a large impact in nanotech research convinced her to make the transition. And although she’s only one of a few female nanotech scientists around, she’s hoping to recruit others in order to help her change the world—one 1,000,000th of a hair at a time.