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By Paul Bradley  /  
2011 October 4 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Tiny Particles and High Hopes

 

Photo courtesy Danville Community College

Beverly Clark III, at right, returned to his hometown to head the
new nanotechnology technician program at Danville Community College.

C  O  V  E  R    S  T  O  R  Y

Tiny Particles and High Hopes
Danville CC Eyes Nanotechnology To Rebuild Economy
By Paul Bradley

In many ways, Elizabeth Wooding is precisely the kind of student that Danville Community College had in mind when it launched its new nanotechnology technician associate degree program, which welcomed its first students this fall.

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Nineteen years old, a single mother who grew up on a farm and graduated from high school in 2010, Wooding works part-time at the local Tractor Supply Co. store to help pay for college. She struggles to make ends meet and organize her life.

But she also is a talented student with a deep and abiding interest in science and a determination to one day earn a Ph.D in biotechnology with an emphasis in nanotechnology.

“I’ve never really been called a geek or a nerd, but I consider myself one,” she said. “I’ve always been interested in science. I read an article in Discover or Smithsonian about nanotechnology when I was in the ninth grade and went to a ‘college night’ to find out more about it.”

So when DCC started its program in nanotechnology – defined as the creation of useful, functional materials, devices, and systems through controlling and manipulating matter at the molecular level – Wooding eagerly signed on. She is one of the seven students who make up DCC’s first nanotechnology technician cohort.

“I could have gone to a lot of different schools,” she said. “But you can go to DCC and get a degree and save $6,000 compared to a four-year school. I have a 19-month-old and I can drive to school. I know the faculty and staff and they know me. When things settle down, I can transfer to a four-year school.”

By starting a nanotechnology program, DCC joins a growing list of community colleges embracing what officials hope is the next big thing, a science with broad and growing applications in healthcare, green technologies, manufacturing and other fields. Though the science of nanotechnology is relatively new, its applications have only recently been going mainstream and can be found in things as diverse as baseball bats and clothing.

“What we are talking about are technical advancements that make materials smaller and stronger,” said program Director Beverly Clark III. “It is projected to grow, that is exactly what this region needs.”

The National Science Foundation predicts that nanotechnology will create nearly a million new jobs within a decade. Some observers have likened the influence that nanotechnology will have on the manufacturing industry to the fundamental shift that took place in the 1970s following development of the microchip and personal computers.

For DCC, it is hoped that nanotechnology over the next decade will provide new, good-paying jobs for a region that sorely needs them. Over the past decade, Danville, located on Virginia’s southern border and is perhaps known best as the last capital of the Confederacy, has lost thousands of jobs as textile plants closed their doors and moved overseas and tobacco farmers plowed over their land. The unemployment rate is nearly 10 percent; per capita income lags far behind state and national averages.

College President Carlyle Ramsey said that for DCC, the nanotechnology program both embraces the future and builds on Danville’s rich manufacturing tradition.

“When we look at new programs we want to be sure they’ll have a positive impact on the industries that we serve,” he said. “We want to be sure that DCC is on the cutting edge of areas that are growing. We are looking at global technological development, and how the college can be a part of it.”

“We were losing thousands and thousands of jobs in textiles and wood manufacturing and tobacco. We felt it was imperative that higher education look at new applications of technology and be involved in economic development in a significant way.”

DCC’s nanotechnology program has its roots in the decision of a company named Luna Innovations to locate a subsidiary, Luna nanoWorks, in an abandoned tobacco warehouse in Danville in 2005. Luna Innovations has had a long presence in Virginia, but the launch of Luna nanoWorks represented a significant opportunity for the company and the college.

The company is involved in the research, development and manufacturing of tiny carbonaceous materials, It holds an exclusive license to produce trimetaspheres, a carbon nanomaterial with numerous potential applications in medical diagnosis and therapy. In Danville, the company’s goal is to produce affordable trimetaspheres to meet growing worldwide demand.

To reach its goals, the company must hire not only scientists and physicists with advanced degrees, but also skilled nanotechnology technicians able to operate high-end laboratory equipment. It turned to DCC to provide the training and hands-on experience those jobs require. In 2006, the company and DCC forged a partnership to meet the Luna’s growing workforce needs, as well as those of companies that don’t specialize in nanotechnology, but require many of the same skills and follow the same laboratory protocols.

NSF Grant

In 2008, DCC was awarded a three-year, $648,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for the creation of a nanotechnology technician program and creation of a nanotechnology technician lab. The goals of the program are ambitious and broad, including: development of a technician-level curriculum that will give workers the skills and education needed to qualify for entry-level technician jobs, while also ensuring that students wanting to transfer to a four-year school have the required educational foundation; the creation of a summer workshop program to provide middle and high school teachers with an introductory-level knowledge of nanotechnology, enabling then to incorporate nanoscience in their classrooms; identification of a set of skills that can be applied broadly to companies involved in nanotechnology; and addressing the needs of existing and displaced workers.

The NSF grant, together with an equipment-sharing agreement with Luna, sets DCC apart from other community college nanotechnology programs. Sophisticated equipment — atomic force microscopes, scanning tunneling microscopes, carbon nanotube reactors and chemical vapor deposition equipment – typically are available only to graduate students at major universities, or in company laboratories. At DCC, they can be found in the new DCC Nanotechnology Lab.

“It’s all right here,” said program director Clark.

Clark is a native of Danville who returned home from North Carolina State University — where he earned a Ph.D. in physics in 2009 — to become DCC’s nanotechnology program director. He said he feels he is giving something back to a city that set him on his own academic path.

“This is an area that has had lots of job losses and really needs something that won’t be going away in ten of 15 years,” he said. “Our goal really is to train students and get them out into the job market.”

Part of Clark’s job will be to spread the word about the new program, which received accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools only in spring 2011. Until then, the college was limited in how it could promote and publicize the program. Those limits contributed to the small initial cohort, he said.

“And you can imagine that when you have people who have never heard of nanotechnology, that makes it a challenge,” he said. “It’s new to a lot of people. We have had a few industries who have come to the area, and that’s helped. There are a lot of employers who are educating themselves about nanotechnology.”

Clark said he has a long-term vision for the nascent program.

“My vision is for the program to become sustainable enough so that we can become a regional center, so that we can offer training not only here but across the country,” he said. “We want to recruit students, and get the current cohort through, so that companies can see that this area really has something to offer.”

For Wooding, the DCC Nanotech Program is a way to help her reach her potential and help lift her hometown from its economic doldrums.

“It’s amazing that DCC has the nanotech program,” she said. “People here have to fight to get a job other than flipping burgers. But they are bringing high tech jobs here. The problem is that nine out of ten people don’t have the training they need. I think this program will allow people here to get these jobs instead of having people move here. Personally, I have too much potential to be flipping burgers.”

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Q: Should colleges invest in nanotechnology programs in the belief that nanotech is the next big thing and can provide jobs for their regions?
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