Journal Archive

Johnson Matthey Technol. Rev., 2022, 66, (1), 114
doi: 10.1595/205651322X16379357955860

“Women in Nanotechnology”

Edited by Pamela M. Norris (University of Virginia, USA) and Lisa E. Friedersdorf (University of Virginia, USA), Women in Engineering and Science Series, Springer Nature Switzerland AG, Cham, Switzerland, 2020, 140 pages, ISBN 978-3-030-19950-0, £74.99, €88.58, US$100.00

  • Reviewed by Sara Coles
  • Johnson Matthey, Gate 2, Orchard Road, Royston, Hertfordshire, SG8 5HE, UK



    Received 22nd November 2021; Online 11th January 2022


This book is part of the Springer series Women in Engineering and Science, Series Editor Jill S. Tietjen, Greenwood Village, Colorado, USA. It has the subtitle ‘Contributions from the Atomic Level and Up’ and this is certainly true: the contributions go all the way up from the atomic scale to the level of society, culture, education and policy.

The book is dedicated to the memory of Mildred “Millie” Dresselhaus. She was born in 1930, graduated in 1951 and worked on semiconductors during the 1960s, during which time she had four children. The preface describes how she moved to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA, because the mandated 8 am start at her original employer conflicted with her family life. Once at MIT she challenged MIT’s admission policy which had been different for men and women. By her efforts, the policy was changed to set the same admission standard for both, seeing an immediate increase in hiring of women as a result. She remained at MIT for the rest of her career, where she became known for her work on carbon based materials including graphite.

The preface emphasises the role of mentors and inspirational figures in encouraging many of the women (including Millie herself) to pursue a career in science, often recognising talents the women themselves had not. Collaboration and networking are important, especially for women, who tend to be less connected because there are fewer of them in science fields. The advice in the book is to connect with other scientists, even if their work doesn’t seem relevant, demonstrating that Millie Dresselhaus was an early adherent of the multidisciplinary approach to science. The preface concludes with a list of articles and other resources about Millie’s life and work.

Inspiration for a Career in Science

The book is unusual in that the collected chapters are chosen first by specialism (nanotechnology) and second by the fact that they are all written by women. Significant space (27 pages out of a total of 172) is devoted to biographies of the contributors. Many of the biographies include touching personal histories including details which would be unthinkable to many women in Western societies, such as not being allowed to travel or leave home without being married. A quote from an Iranian scientist during her studies: “the only thing waiting for me back home was an unwanted marriage”.

Over half of the contributors mentioned the importance of a mentor, guide or inspirational person in their choice of career path. A similar proportion mention their current work teaching or mentoring the next generation, often focused on women, girls or other underrepresented groups in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

In addition to sharing their own experience, several of the biographies include advice such as “build a strong foundation so [you] can take advantage of opportunities as they arise”. For those women who chose to marry or have children during their studies or early career, some describe the challenges of marriage, children, difficult pregnancies or their husband taking a job on the other side of the continent. But none of this stopped them from completing their education and building their careers, or even being offered senior posts in which they thrived.

One contributor was inspired to become an engineer after a school visit to a laboratory sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), USA, which emphasised science and engineering as career options for a young girl interested in mathematics and science. A counterintuitive source of inspiration came in the form of a lecturer who once told her that “girls are not supposed to be engineers”. She determined to prove him wrong and succeeded in doing so. The importance of failure was also emphasised: “students need to hear of experiences overcoming adversity and of failures”, a sentiment that echoes advice in a provocative 2008 essay in Journal of Cell Science (1). Other advice stresses “it is the excitement over your research that gives you the motivation to work harder, not the seniority of your professor or the location of your lab”.

The book opens with chapters focused on education and communication, moves on to the environment and safety, then some specific technology areas (medicine, energy and water) before it finishes with communication once again, this time at the level of policy and the frameworks needed for advocating new technologies.

Nanotechnology Basics

Chapter 1, ‘Why Size Matters’, provides a grounding in the basics of nanotechnology. It is illustrated with the well-known phenomenon that gold, while appearing yellow in bulk, can appear red or blue-purple at certain nano-sizes. A similar effect is described in quantum dots where the wavelength emitted by ZnCdSeS quantum dots (and hence their colour) varies with particle size (Figure 1). Top-down vs. bottom-up concepts of materials design are described along with the inspiration of nature which often functions at the nanoscale. The chapter summarises the contributions of mostly women scientists between 2005 and 2019.

Fig. 1.

Quantum dots. The image shows ZnCdSeS alloyed quantum dots from PlasmaChem. The emission wavelength of a quantum dot can be tuned by changing its diameter. Reprinted by permission from Springer Nature Customer Service Centre GmbH: Springer Nature, “Women in Nanotechnology” by Pamela M. Norris and Lisa E. Friedersdorf, Copyright (2020)

Communicating Nanoscience

Chapter 2, ‘Nanotechnology as a Tool for Science and Scientific Literacy’, summarises contributions to education aimed at students, university undergraduates, textbooks and the public. It distinguishes two main goals: science literacy, meaning factual knowledge about science; and scientific literacy, meaning the art of critical thinking derived from a greater understanding of the world through scientific methods. It further divides audiences into technical, such as STEM professionals, and non-technical, meaning the public and students who do not have expertise in STEM. It concludes that nanotechnology is effective for both science literacy and scientific literacy for a STEM audience. For the non-STEM audience it can contribute to their science knowledge but will not help their scientific literacy for reasons which are explored in some depth. This chapter is important if you are a science communicator of any kind.

Chapter 3, ‘Nanotechnology and Education’, remains in the communication sphere. It emphasises the need to engage youth to solve the challenges faced by our world. It begins with reference to Feynman’s work in 1960 when the manipulation of atoms began to open up new fields of possibility. Many inventions in materials science, medicine, energy and electronics depended on discoveries in nanoscience. There is a detour into the psychological research on learning styles, constructivism and developments in the science curriculum of the USA. One interesting initiative was partnerships between universities and local schools providing access to instruments such as atomic force microscopes and scanning tunnelling microscopes. There are some examples of activities that educators can do with students of all ages to help them understand the nanoscale, plus some resources listed in an Appendix at the end of the chapter.

Safety and Responsibility

Chapter 4 is titled ‘Nanotoxicity: Developing a Responsible Technology’. Starting in the early 2000s, there was growing public discussion around the “environmental and social costs” of nanotechnology and concern over the lack of clear guidelines for including nanoscale materials in commercial and industrial products. The chapter summarises the large body of literature that has built up in this area to date and follows a broad risk assessment structure. It starts with exposure and gives some broad conclusions about the differences in behaviour between smaller and larger particles. The chapter moves on to the physicochemical characteristics of nanomaterials and the need for a range of complementary techniques as no single technique can provide all answers. It finishes with environmental and physiological transformations and their implications for ecology, health and medicine.

Chapter 5 is a short chapter on ‘Plant Virus-Based Nanotechnologies’. It revisits inspiration from nature in more depth by exploring the ingenious idea of nanoscale engineering for disease detection and prevention. As the chapter says, “Viruses [...] can function as prefabricated nanoparticles that have naturally evolved to deliver cargos to cells and tissues”. This is now being harnessed for molecular imaging, drug delivery, cancer prevention and immunotherapy. The sheer diversity of virus shapes and sizes is shown with just a few examples in Figure 2. These are mostly virus pathogens that infect and damage crops, livestock or people. Luckily, they can be modified using various strategies now at our disposal including biological, chemical and physical methods. The chapter rounds off by pointing out the advantages of using plant viruses for animal or human treatments: they may be easier and cheaper to cultivate compared to mammal cells and the inherently non-infectious nature of plant virus towards human hosts offers an added layer of safety.

Fig. 2.

The diversity of virus shapes and sizes. Transmission electron micrographs illustrate some of the many different virus shapes that can be found in nature. (a) Icosahedral cowpea mosaic virus (CPMV); (b) rod-shaped tobacco mosaic virus (TMV); (c) filamentous potato virus X (PVX); (d) highly flexible grapevine virus A (GVA); (e) Acidianus bottle-shaped virus; (f) Acidianus zipper-like virus. Reprinted by permission from Springer Nature Customer Service Centre GmbH: Springer Nature, “Women in Nanotechnology” by Pamela M. Norris and Lisa E. Friedersdorf, Copyright (2020)

Energy and Water Applications of Nanoscience

Chapter 6, ‘Power Generation Using Solid State Heat Engines’, sees a shift of topic towards energy. It starts with a Native American proverb: “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children”. This was never more relevant than today with the heightened awareness and willingness to protect the environment and earth’s resources from overexploitation. The chapter states that many parts of the technology required to run our homes, cars and industry without fossil fuels already exist. Several pages are spent setting the scene for the problems in achieving this. It then moves on to summarise types of thermal to electrical power generators with no moving parts. The chapter is light on details but provides references to sources for those who wish to know more about the technologies (1950s to 2010s).

Chapter 7, ‘Manipulating Water and Heat with Nanoengineered Surfaces’, again covers the problems of sustainable development and use of resources, this time starting with water. It points out the often close link between water use and energy, with water being used as a medium for energy transport due to its high specific heat capacity. Improving thermal transport in power plants is important to improve efficiency. On the other hand the same properties of water make processes like desalination energy intensive. The authors review their own work in the area of thermal management for power generation, electronics and water desalination.

Chapter 8, ‘Engineering Interfaces at the Nanoscale’, starts with a history of electronic computers from the 1940s to modern microprocessors. The drive for miniaturisation and ‘Moore’s Law’ are introduced briefly. The limiting factor is thought to be heat dissipation and thermal management. It is important to understand heat transport and generation mechanisms in a solid and for this purpose the chapter describes the theory and practical application of phonon density of states in modelling the systems with the aim of preventing self-heating at length scales of micrometres to nanometres. This chapter may be a little basic for specialists in the field but should prove useful to students or those needing to get up to speed in a hurry.

Plenty of Room at the Bottom

Chapter 9, ‘National Nanotechnology Initiative: A Model for Advancing Revolutionary Technologies’ is a surprisingly interesting chapter about the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) set up by the US Federal Government in 2003 to support research and development (R&D), standards and regulations as well as education and public outreach. It has produced results based on its stated goal of achieving practical applications and public benefit in a safe and responsible way. The success of the US approach is shown by the provided graph of number of patents published in three or more countries by the USA, Japan, Germany, South Korea and France, identified as leading countries in nanotechnology R&D (Figure 3). The USA was among the first countries to establish a nanotechnology initiative, ahead of South Korea, Singapore, China and almost all other countries except Sweden which established theirs at around the same time. The chapter reviews people, events and policies leading to the establishment of nanotechnology as a discipline, mainly derived from the author’s experience serving as an R&D director at the White House in the USA in the early 2000s. She was clearly well-placed to both observe and directly influence momentous events. It concludes with a list of success factors: vision of its founders, good timing, coordination and risk assessment. Based on the motto “plenty of room at the bottom” there is still much work to be done and opportunity to be found in medicine, energy, electronics and other areas.

Fig. 3.

Number of patents published in three or more countries by inventors in the United States and other leading countries in nanotechnology R&D. Reprinted by permission from Springer Nature Customer Service Centre GmbH: Springer Nature, “Women in Nanotechnology” by Pamela M. Norris and Lisa E. Friedersdorf, Copyright (2020)


It seems a bit one-sided to highlight the contributions only of women, but there was clearly a gap in the market which Springer has filled amply. Several of the contributors acknowledged that many colleagues, collaborators and students with whom the featured women have worked as well as in many (though not all) cases their families, friends and other supporters have made their work possible. These women, especially those brave women who have stepped outside their cultural norms to do so, surely deserve to be celebrated for their contribution to the understanding and development of nanotechnology. This book provides an eclectic mix of stories about science and scientists that should be recommended and read far beyond its intended audience of professional scientists.

"Women in Nanotechnology"


  1. 1.
    M. A. Schwartz, J. Cell Sci., 2008, 121, (11), 1771 LINK

The Author

Sara Coles is the Editor of the Johnson Matthey Technology Review. She joined Johnson Matthey in 2006 to work on the journal Platinum Metals Review and was promoted to Editor of the renamed journal in 2014. She is responsible for identifying, sourcing, commissioning and obtaining articles and reviews for publication in line with our current Editorial Policy, as well as arranging peer review and coordinating production and editing by the journal team.

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