By Samantha Jones Toal

Interim Director of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology Catherine Murphy was recently appointed to a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine ad hoc committee to conduct a quadrennial review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative.

Nanotechnology is the branch of science and engineering devoted to designing, producing and using structures, devices and systems by manipulating atoms and molecules at nanoscale — a scale that’s challenging to conceptualize given the average sheet of paper is 100,000 nanometers thick. Yet these microscopic alterations are responsible for applications such as the semiconductor chips that enable current computer technologies and the efficient delivery of breast cancer medicines.

“The national focus on nanotechnology began in 2003 when the Nanotechnology Research and Development Act was put into effect, allocating significant resources to the field,” Murphy said. “This year’s review [of the national technology initiative] is going to be very important. When they’ve met in the past the initiative was like a toddler, and then a teenager, and now it’s transitioned to adulthood.”

Aside from acting as interim director at Beckman, Murphy is a University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign faculty member researching materials chemistry, inorganic chemistry and biophysical chemistry alongside nanotechnology. She is a professor and the Larry R. Faulkner Endowed Chair in Chemistry; a professor in the Departments of Bioengineering, Materials Science and Engineering, and Biomedical and Translational Sciences; and an affiliate of the Materials Research Lab, Holonyak Micro & Nanotechnology Lab, and Center for Advanced Study.

“As someone in academia, it’s fun to be a part of a big picture initiative,” Murphy said. “It’s also a benefit to meet peers you wouldn’t come into contact with otherwise. Oftentimes, it’s these unique opportunities that enable scientific collaboration.”

Murphy will be joined on the committee by esteemed academics and nanotechnology industry experts from across the country, as a committee reviews the National Nanotechnology Initiative once every four years. Murphy and the rest of the committee will meet on a weekly basis to analyze the current nanotechnology trends, opportunities and emerging use cases, as well as determine the state of nanotechnology infrastructure.

The team will report on a variety of factors such as job opportunities for nanotechnology experts, as well as the global impact on U.S. nanotechnology research. The committee will author a report to share with the Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology Subcommittee of the White House National Science and Technology Council and the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office aimed at improving research and development strategy and using research findings to bolster the economy and national security.

“I joined the committee because it could be that we determine best practices on training, staffing or infrastructure requirements that have a significant impact down the line,” Murphy said. “But more than anything, I’m excited to have a say in the future. The committee is all volunteer-based and will be putting in significant work this year to support and expand the field.”