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Nanotechnology – The Next Revolution

Careers in Science From the Field

Charles Chung recently received his PhD, which focused on microtechnology, from the Georgia Institute of Technology . He also holds an MS in physics from Duke University and BS in physics and environmental studies from the University of Pennsylvania.

Charles works as a graduate research assistant at the Georgia Institute of Technology but has also worked for the NASA-Langley Research Center, the NOAA-National Solar Observatory and the Franklin Institute Science Museum. In addition to various publications, he holds a US patent on micromachined devices. Charles served on SPUSA's Board of Directors as the co-chair of the Chapter Advisory Council.

What is your profession?

I am a microelectronics engineer.

Can you describe a typical week in your position?

A typical week involves trying to advance the current project by one step. This often entails a number of small, test experiments to find the correct conditions, and once they are identified, apply them to the set of microscopic devices to get them one step closer to completion.

What are the most important personal satisfactions connected with your occupation? dissatisfactions?

The most satisfying aspect is the knowledge that I am working on a powerful technology that may lead to new ways to improve people's lives. The most dissatisfying aspect is when you have exhausted every other approach, you have to take the Edisonian approach of just rolling up your sleeves and trying every conceivable possibility, until you find something that works. This can be sheer drudgery, but it is a powerful last resort that will often answer the question.

What part of this job do you personally find most challenging?

Personally? Probably keeping in perspective how cool the work really is. Day-to-day, I see little change, but answering questions like these reminds me of the big picture, and how exciting the technology is.

What is the greatest benefit of working in the field of micro-/nanotechnology?
For me it is just being involved in something that I think is cool. It is something that I enjoy thinking about, and I spend free time reading about it, thinking about, playing with it, just because I think it is so interesting.

What are the biggest challenges facing your field?

The greatest challenge right now is to find applications for these devices. All sorts of microsystems have now been made--micro-mechanical systems, micro-chemical systems, micro-optical sytems--you name it, and it has been miniaturized! However, among micro-systems, only microelectronics has found wide application. But it is the oldest of these technologies. It took about 25 years from the invention of the integrated circuit--the first useful micro-electronic system--in 1958, for microelectronics to become a major cultural influence through the information revolution. The other micro-systems are extensions of the microelectronic technology, and only really began development in the late 1970s and 1980s. Now they have reached a point where many technological issues have been solved, and the great challenge is find applications for these devices. The hope is that they too will become ubiquitous, in such a way that they enable shifts as profound as the information revolution.

What are the skills that are most important for a position in this field?

In my opinion, skills are largely acquirable, if there is sufficient interest. Of more importance is imagination, passion and integrity. My belief is that every endeavor has components that are hard for each individual. However, given enough practice, effort and time, anyone can and will find solutions to whatever challenges they face. The critical component is how much do you enjoy it and how important it is to you. But, to answer the question, the skills that I find myself continually employing are abstract quantitative modeling and interpersonal communication.

What kind of experience, paid or unpaid, would you encourage someone to gain if s/he is interested in pursuing a career in this field?

It depends on your level of technical expertise. If you are a complete novice, then I would recommend to just start reading about the field. You can find articles in Wired, Technology Review, Scientific American, and If you have a Bachelor's level understanding of math, physics, chemistry, or engineering, then I would suggest going to a lab, finding a project and participating. Volunteer for the first couple of months. When funding comes in for a new project, if it interests you, then ask to join.

What type of education background is required?

It depends on the role that one wants to play. I would say, at minimum, a Bachelor's degree in a physical science or engineering.

What are the typical entry-level job titles and functions? What entry-level jobs are best for learning as much as possible?

I suppose Engineer would be the entry-level title. The function is basically to solve some small set of problems involved with building these little gadgets.

What are the salary ranges for various levels in this field? Is there a salary ceiling?

Starting salaries for Bachelor's degrees in engineering are around $50k. This can range up to about $200k or greater for a Ph.D. in a high level position. Because technology can be so entrepreneurial, there is really no salary ceiling. If you start a successful company, you can sell it for hundreds of millions of dollars.

What special advice do you have for a student seeking to qualify for working in the field of micro-/nanotechnology?

If you think it is cool, if you find it fascinating, then just jump in. There are plenty of problems to solve, and there's always a way to use another pair of hands, another set of eyes, and another sharp mind. Read up on the field, pick a problem that you'd like to solve, and find a team that you want to work with.

Nikos Nikolidakis, Free University Berlin, 2003 Fall intern