Ahmad's Trademark is Multidisciplinary Collaboration & Outreach

Q&A with Dr. Irfan Ahmad, Recipient of 2018 CAPE Award

After he was chosen to receive one of this year’s six Chancellor’s Academic Professional Excellence (CAPE) Awards, we had the chance to sit down with Dr. Irfan Ahmad to chat about his outreach and research efforts, and what’s next on his professional agenda.

Ahmad served as Executive Director for the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology (CNST) from 2003 to 2017, which included stints as Assistant Director, and then Associate Director, with a concurrent research faculty appointment in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, and as resident faculty at MNTL.  He also served in an interim role for 18 months as Assistant Dean for Research for the College of Engineering, bringing in new teams and projects, such as those in advanced robotic surgery, and advanced drying.

Brian Cunningham, Director of MNTL, was elated to learn that Ahmad had been selected for a CAPE Award this year, and said, “Irfan’s stewardship of the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology from its founding through its conclusion in 2017 supported the generation of many center-style proposals and outreach activities that are the hallmark of the University of Illinois. Irfan participated in the establishment of the Nano-CEMMS NSF-funded Center, the Nanomedicine for Cancer Workshop, the NSF Center for Innovative Instrumentation Technology (CiiT), the Nanomanufacturing and NanoBio Nodes, the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute, as well as a variety of training grants that brought Research Experiences for Undergraduates and Research Experiences for Teachers programs to the College. Irfan is well-known across campus for his efforts to bring multidisciplinary collaborators together on topics ranging from veterinary medicine to crop science, which often results in the most interesting new science. Irfan is also a vocal advocate for all things “nanotechnology” on our campus, and you may have heard him speak on WILL or seen him at the CNST booth at the Urbana farmer’s market. Many people on the campus and in the community have benefited from Irfan’s enthusiasm for the exciting breadth of nanotechnology.”


Q:  You’ve been involved in so many interdisciplinary and outreach-oriented programs, is there any one program that really resonates with you? If yes, which one, and why?

Ahmad:  There are a number of federally funded programs/projects that have had a major impact on research, education, and training of the next generation workforce in nanotechnology at the University of Illinois and beyond. The one which stands out in particular for me is the National Institutes of Health/National Cancer Institute funded Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence (CCNE) project, in collaboration with Washington University in Saint Louis. 

This was probably among the first such large NCI-funded, multidisciplinary 5-year projects brought into the College of Engineering and the Micro & Nanotechnology Laboratory. This contributed to the offering of the first nanomedicine course at Illinois, and the funding to support cancer nanotechnology research. All of it had a positive impact on the careers of junior faculty at the College of Engineering and campus-wide. This program also served as a launchpad for several other subsequent programs funded by NIH/NCI and NSF at Illinois and MNTL. 

At least one other project, which can be highlighted as most successful in developing novel technologies such as a high performance micro/nano manufacturing platform, new microfluidic networks with embedded micro/nano-scale pumps, valves and sensing elements, and transfer printing technologies is the NSF-funded Nanotechnology Science and Engineering Center (NSEC) -the Center for Nano Chemical-Electrical-Mechanical Manufacturing Systems (Nano-CEMMS), which completed 10 years of operations. This then resulted in the DOD-funded Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII) project through the UI-Labs, in which Illinois is a founding member.


Q:  What do you see as the toughest aspect of obtaining grants for learning and outreach activities?

Ahmad:  Generally, grants for learning and outreach are few and hard to come by. Mostly, they are integrated into current research and training grants; this often then leads to non-sustainable activities. Even when one gets such a grant, it hardly comes with funds to support project management personnel costs, which makes it harder on the system to execute and sustain. Therefore, more emphasis on standalone funding and support is needed from federal and state agencies, industry, and the campus to help build and sustain the STEM pipeline, particularly in the areas of micro and nanotechnology.


Q:  What do you see as the most valuable legacy of the CNST program?

Ahmad:  There’s so much!  I would consider creating a more robust nano@Illinois ecosystem through the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology (CNST) a great legacy. It led to campus-wide research, education and training, entrepreneurship, and outreach collaboration and engagement, and served as a central resource for the campus and others outside the university.  

Despite its lean resources, the CNST established itself as the nerve center for generating novel multidisciplinary micro and nanotechnology ideas, initiatives and projects, transcending academic institutions in the U.S. and worldwide, and bringing in more than $100M in project funds from federal agencies and industry. While each of the established labs have had a long history and tradition of excellence, CNST helped package these campus-wide strengths into a virtual center, thereby making it something bigger and larger in addressing such critical issues as cancer, advanced manufacturing and materials, food and agriculture, and energy. Through these and other activities, MNTL’s role and contributions to bionanotechnology and nanomedicine was strengthened, while capitalizing on its usual strengths in nanoelectronics and nanophotonics.   

I recall, once I was in a meeting with the late Dr. Paul Magelli from the College of Business at Illinois, and he looked at the nano@illinois Faculty Handbook compiled by the CNST, and he remarked, “…it is one of the best publications I have come across from the UI in recent times”, since it profiled not only the 200-plus faculty researchers from across the campus, but also made the information accessible thematically, along with highlighting campus nano labs and other resources. CNST also provided career counseling to students and pointed them to opportunities while leading activities through the CNST-Student Initiative.

One aspect, which does not get highlighted as much, is CNST’s contributions in engaging the community and the public through nano@PublicSquare booths at the local Urbana Farmers’ Market, at the Engineering Open House, at Capitol Hill, the State Capitol, and other forums, including radio, TV, print media, and social media. This helped to build the STEM pipeline through such funded programs as nano@illinois Research Experience for Teachers (RET), Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), and nanoSTRuCT (Nanoscale Science and Technology Resources for Community Teaching) for K-12, in addition to hands-on Annual Summer Institutes on nanotechnology for graduate students, postdocs, junior faculty, and industry representatives. 

We conducted 14 annual nanotechnology workshops since 2003, which became a signature event for the Illinois campus, and attracted distinguished scientists and engineers from academia and industry in the U.S. and worldwide, as well as program managers from federal agencies, national labs, and federal and state legislators, undergraduate and graduate students, and postdocs. 

I will be amiss if I do not mention the visionary leadership and general guidance provided to CNST since its inception by its founding director, Dr. Ilesanmi Adesida (who served as director of MNTL, later Dean of the College of Engineering, and then Provost); Rashid Bashir; and more recently, Brian Cunningham


Q:  Where do you see nanotechnology heading in the future, at the University of Illinois?

Ahmad:  Nanotechnology is and has been entrenched at the University of Illinois. The UI is a leader in nanotechnology research, education, training, and entrepreneurship, and will continue to broadly impact society.  The Micro & Nanotechnology Laboratory has historically led some of the cutting-edge research in nanoelectronics, nanophotonics, MEMS/NEMS and systems integration, and more recently bionanotechnology and nanomedicine. 

Similarly, the Frederick Seitz Materials Research Laboratory, the Coordinated Science Laboratory, the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, the Carl Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, the Research Park, and other units also form the nanotechnology ecosystem. Nanotechnology will have profound impact in biomedicine, food and agriculture, advanced materials, and security. Coupled with big data, it will shape how we live and interact with our environment. Standards are needed, privacy concerns will have to be addressed, and policy has to be framed, while the research and development continues. Therefore, an area of interest to me and some others has been the societal implications of nanotechnology.


Q:  What’s next on your professional agenda? What does your 2018 look like, in terms of professional projects?

Ahmad:  There are multiple global challenges, which also affect us here in the U.S., such as global health, cancer, neuroscience, food security and safety, environment, energy, and security, including cybersecurity. The UI will continue to contribute to these efforts as a leader. 

Personally, I would like to see the establishment of a Food Safety Engineering Research Center. I am also engaged, via the College of Engineering, with the Carle Illinois College of Medicine in helping to develop the first of its kind Medical Maker Lab, which would possibly involve all major UI labs, including MNTL, where 3D printing and fabrication facilities exist or can be developed to democratize innovation across the scale. These are exciting times to be an engineer, for making a profound positive impact on society.