Celebrating 15 years of the NNI: A Conversation with Lisa Friedersdorf

Celebrating 15 years of the NNI: A Conversation with Lisa Friedersdorf


Hi! I’m Tarek Fadel and we’re turning the tables
today on Stories from the NNI to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the National Nanotechnology
Initiative. I’ll be interviewing Dr. Lisa Friedersdorf,
Director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, also called the NNCO. To tell you a little bit more about myself,
I am the assistant director of the Marble Center for Cancer Nanomedicine, a research
center within the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT. The research center brings together what has
been an extremely active multidisciplinary community of interest in nanomedicine at the
institute level to focus on grand challenges in cancer detection, treatment, and monitoring. Before joining MIT, I was myself part of the
NNCO gang as a staff scientist supporting the coordination office, so its good to be
back. So today, I’m pleased to be chatting
with Dr. Lisa Friedersdorf to learn more about what she has planned to celebrate the NNI. Lisa has been involved in nanotechnology for
over 25 years, with a particular interest in advancing technology commercialization
through university, industry, government collaboration. She’s a strong advocate for science, technology,
engineering, and mathematics education and has over two decades of experience teaching
at both university and high school levels. Prior to joining the NNCO, Lisa held a number
of positions at the intersections of academia, industry and government. Additionally, Lisa has been active in the
start-up ecosystem for many years assisting small companies with business development
and access to resources and vetting emerging technologies for investors. Lisa, can you tell us a little more about
this anniversary? Lisa: Its been 15 years since the National
Nanotechnology Initiative, or the NNI, was signed into law with the 21st Century Nanotechnology
Research and Development Act. To celebrate the 15 year anniversary, NNCO
will be exploring the extraordinary advances enabled
by this collective effort, the impacts these discoveries are having on society, and what
lies ahead. For example, we’re planning a series of podcasts
that will showcase experts from academia, government, and industry, who will provide
their perspectives on key research advances in nanotechnology and how the NNI has changed
the nanotechnology landscape. Depending on their area of expertise, these
experts will also present key nanotechnology applications and their impacts on
society. And of course, compelling questions that remain
to be addressed. We’ve already started to record some
of these podcasts and its been a lot of fun. When I talk to folks, they might be a little
bit hesitant at first, but when I start asking them questions, you know, what do you know
now that you didn’t know 15 years ago? Once people start thinking about, oh gosh,
yeah, when I was doing this research 10 years ago, I didn’t know this, this, and this. And I think that, looking at the advances
through the researchers eyes, through the developers eyes, through the people who are
bringing these ideas to market, is going to be a compelling story. Tarek: Thanks Lisa. This is really exciting. Under the NNI, several federal agencies have
really built a robust set of infrastructure or R&D user facilities and centers as networks
to create and extensive resource for outside users. One question I have for you is, during the
past 15 years, can you tell us about the role of this infrastructure in nanotechnology advances? Lisa: In preparing for this anniversary, I’ve
spent a lot of time looking at some of the early documents and the arguments that were
put forward for even establishing a national initiative in this area. And one of the key needs that was identified
at that time was the need for access to instrumentation that is cutting-edge, is too costly for a
single research group or even a single institution in some cases to buy what they need. And I think that this is one of the critical
areas that the NNI has developed over the last 15 years. If you look at the user facilities that have
been developed under the NSF, where universities have facilities that are open to other researchers,
and this infrastructure has really enabled researchers to collaborate, to access tools,
to make materials, to make devices, and to characterize these materials. There’s also user facilities at the DOE national
labs, the Nanoscale Science Research Centers, NSRCs, and they provide access to cutting-edge
tools again, that just wouldn’t be possible for individual researchers to have. But they’ve also been incredibly useful for
the commercialization of nanotechnology. Small companies that can have access to do,
you know, early prototypes, or characterization at the early stages of their company before
they can afford their own tools, I think, has really been valuable to the much broader
community. Tarek: So, I really want to talk about the
commercial stuff, right, because that’s also something that’s very much a really, essential
part of this initiative. And how do you think NNI helps foster the
transfer of new technologies into products for commercial and public benefit? Lisa: So, Tarek, as you know, this bridging
between academia, goverment, industry is kind of where I’ve spent most of my career and
I think that, you know, looking at how to take these advances and move them into the
marketplace has been something that is really important to me and important to many of us
in the NNI. The NNI fosters tech transfer, and as you
said, its a really important part of the initiative, its one of the four goals. And there’s a number of ways in which the
NNI does this. You know, the NNI agencies have SBIR and STTR
programs that help support small businesses. The small businesses we talk to, the nanotechnology
companies, are saying that, you know, this is a non-diluted source of funds when their
just getting started. It really can be impactful and either make
or break a business. The I-corps programs by NSF and now several
other agencies. At the NNCO, we have a dedicated staff member
who works with industry and tries to point them in right direction, at resources and
opportunities that might benefit them. And we’ve also developed a webinar and podcast
series aimed at really sharing best practices among small and medium sized companies. But really, trying to find ways to help in
any way that we can that’s appropriate. Lisa: So Tarek, you’ve been involved in nanotechnology
for a long time, can you give me your perspective on what you’re excited about? You know, what have you seen nanotechnology
be able to do? And maybe even more importantly, what are
you most excited about going forward? Tarek: Thanks Lisa. New advanced materials that you can use for
aerospace and defense applications. There’s also the advance of DNA-based information
storage technology, where each gram of DNA could store 455 exabytes of data. And then, finally, understanding the importance
of new technology and devices for early detection of cancer. This is something that’s getting really hot
right now. For example, detecting circulating tumor cells
and the role they play in metastasis. And there’s a lot of really good work that’s
being done in early detection. The thing that we have to consider, though,
is it takes a long time to see these types of results emerge, and especially with a field
like biotechnology, where, you know, the life-cycle of a product takes a while to come out. And so, you know, I think we still have a
lot of work to be done on that end. Even though we’re seeing all these great advances
materialize and new fields emerge, I think we’re still not quite at the inflection point,
maybe right at the inflection point, and we’re going to see a lot of great things happen
in the near future. Lisa: Yeah, I mean you mentioned some of the
products that we’re seeing mass market applications. I mean, we carry a super computer in our pocket,
right? But so much of that device is enabled by nanotechnology. What I get most excited about is the fact
that as our knowledge of nanotechnology advances, as our ability to, you know, manipulate matter
at this scale, and develop new materials and new architectures, you know, we’re able to
do things we couldn’t do before. And those are the things that really excite
me. I mean, looking at multi-functionalities,
so you have materials that are strong and lightweight, but maybe they also conduct electricity
for deicing on an aircraft wing for instance. And that’s a simple example, I mean, there’s
all kinds of really more complicated examples. One of the things that I get excited about
is some of these sensor tattoos being able to monitor heart rate, for instance, with
a very lightweight, unobtrusive sensor so that compliance for monitoring is much greater. But things like energy harvesting, you know,
having little, teeny, tiny, silicon nanowires that take the vibration and turn it into an
electrical signal, I mean, you know, to charge your cell phone in your pocket. Those are things that aren’t possible without
nanotechnology. And I’m excited to see develop and change
our world. Tarek: Yeah, I completely agree. One example that I get really, you know, all
passionate and excited about is definitely, you know, the recent FDA approval of a drug
that basically harnessed a Nobel Prize-winning discovery in, you know, nucleic acid and RNA. And, you know, they are able to actually use,
you know, a particle, a nanoparticle delivery system to achieve that. And so it goes back to the whole idea that
this pervasive field called nanoscience or nanotechnology is really enabling new frontiers
and fields to emerge on their own. Lisa: Thank you! And I appreciate your participating in this
Story from the NNI. Tarek: Thanks very much Lisa. That was really a fun conversation.

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