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What it takes to study nanotechnology: Q&A with Prof. Ted Sargent

What does it take to study, and build a career in, nanotechnology? Prof. Ted Sargent from the University of Toronto speaks to BrainGain Magazine.
BY Uma Asher |   17-08-2017

Professor Ted Sargent is Vice President – International, University of Toronto. He also teaches in the university’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Earlier this year, he spoke to BrainGain Magazine about nanotechnology, and what it takes to pursue a career in a cutting-edge discipline, the value of a PhD and the advantages of studying in the University of Toronto.
Edited excerpts are below:

  • How did you develop your interest in nanotechnology?

    I’ve been fascinated about scientific advances in nanotechnology but I’ve been fascinated as an engineer. So, chemists have figured out how to make new materials that can have many different colours, thanks to the size of nanomaterials. And they figured out how to make molecules do things that no natural molecules have done. But, then there’s a need for engineers to translate these into devices.

    In my research, I translate the fundamental scientific innovations of chemists, and of physicists, into real devices.

    For example, we’ve made a new camera that will go into next generation smartphones. It can see Infrared light, invisible light, that today’s cameras simply can’t see. It comes from engineering practical devices, but all built off the advances of some beautiful nanoscience.

  • Do you start off a new project by thinking as an engineer or an entrepreneur?

    When I start a project within my research group in the University of Toronto, my first thought is always on the fundamental impact. It’s about – is it a new idea? Because I know I’m actually creating a new pipeline – some of the ideas we work on can be beautiful science, but not every one of them is going to translate into a big market, or a market that’s ready for disruption, a market that requires change.

    And then, as our new idea progresses, we see whether our new idea’s working, we see whether it really translates into technology. And we ask whether it’s impact could really transform a billion-dollar existing market, could really turn it into a 10-billion dollar one. Our work on image sensors turned out to be one such market where Envisage, my startup company, is really changing the way things are done within the light sensing market. And Exogenic, which is a company that I’m a co-founder of, has determined that a technology that I and my collaborators at the University of Toronto discovered on sensing DNA could really change the way that disease is diagnosed – a hugely important problem in medicine and clinical care, and also a very large business opportunity.

  • What does it take to pursue studies in nanotechnology?

    I think [there are] two most important qualities for a student – an undergraduate or a postgraduate student, working in any frontier area – could be nanotechnology, could be deep learning in which U of T has played such a pioneering role, could be biomedicine.

    The first quality is fearlessness, and the second is entrepreneurialism. By fearlessness I mean, these areas are changing all the time. They’re moving faster than undergraduate education is moving. So, with your undergraduate education, or your doctoral education, you’re getting training in certain areas. But, when you go do your research, when you go start your own company, the landscape will have shifted enough that you’re picking up, that you’re inventing, [so] that you’re improvising as a researcher, as an entrepreneur.

    And the second point, which I described as entrepreneurialism means that you really need to be ambitious, and a thought-leader. In my experience, people who follow, who look for existing trends, and see how they can follow them and track them are not going to be the ones to create new companies. And they’re not going to be the ones to track venture investment.

    The ones who define a new vision are the kinds of students or faculty members or graduate students who we have at the University of Toronto. They are out in front and they have a Pied Piper effect wherein, others – students, scientists, researchers, engineers, technicians, businesspeople follow them, follow their vision. And that, to me, is how you create disruptive change and how you build businesses.

  • How can a PhD help students build a career or business?

    You know, in my experience, the PhD is becoming a more and more popular degree. Of course, it has been and will continue to be, a base for becoming an academic leader – for becoming a professor, for running your own research group, for teaching the next generation of students, which is an extremely rewarding career. But increasingly, it’s also the base for leadership in industry. And that could be a technical base. So, our students are getting PhDs to go work at Google, and Apple, Facebook, Amazon, IBM, GM, Bombardier. They’re going out into the workforce, but the workforce demands really profound training – deep expertise, but also entrepreneurialism that I described. And the doctoral degree is a platform to do that.

    The other thing is it’s also a real platform for change over the course of your career. And so for the first ten years of your career, you want to be an independent technical contributor, for the remaining 50 years of your career, you want to be a CEO or a CTO or a CFO or a Chairman of the board, or you want to be a venture investor, or you want to be a philanthropist. And the doctoral degree is really a versatile platform for doing it, really unlike any other degree.

  • What role do students play in cutting-edge research?

    Graduate students are really the heart of the research enterprise. Professors are advising. But it’s masters, and doctoral students and also post-doctoral fellows who are doing the actual work.

    Actually, I’ll give you an example of a wonderful post-doctoral fellow that I work closely with – he’s in my group. His name is Ankit Jain. He did an undergrad degree at an IIT, his PhD at Carnegie Mellon University. Then he came to University of Toronto to join my research program. As soon as he joined me, he was scooped up into an IBM post-doctoral fellowship, which supported him, and also,\ allowed a lot of collaboration. A lot of corporate learning that happened at IBM. So, Ankit and his colleagues have made a lot of huge advances in the area of computational nanotechnology – predicting what the experiments will tell us before the experiments are done. It allows us to accelerate our research. And now, Ankit and his colleagues are right at the leading edge of using machine learning and deep learning to accelerate computational material science for nanotechnology. So, they’re right at the frontier. And that’s exactly where UofT doctoral students, masters students and postdocs should be, and are today.

  • Does the University of Toronto offer funding to international students?

    So the funding for graduate students, especially international ones, comes principally from the research grants of doctoral advisors. When a student applies to the University of Toronto for their graduate studies, they’ll apply to the university, they’ll apply to the department, and then making the connection to a prospective group of graduate advisors is very important. Because there’s a matchmaking that happens there, where the student and the advisor see one another’s expertise, see one another’s interest, get excited about working together. And where the graduate advisor decides to apply some of their research funding to support the student.

  • What do computer engineering students usually go on to do?

    People who get degrees from the Electrical and Computer Engineering at the U of T, which is my own home department, go on to an incredible diversity of different jobs. Though many of them take up positions within the greater Toronto area, where there’s huge opportunities for employment, for example, IBM which has over 5000 positions doing research, engineering. Some very exciting work in software happens at IBM.

    Many of them go and work at leading multinational companies – Google has a presence in Canada, Facebook, Amazon, Tesla just opened a presence in Canada.

    All of the leading tech companies [are] flocking to the Toronto area because of the great environment, the great city that it is, the financial environment and the tremendous talent that the University of Toronto has attracted to the city.

    So really with the University of Toronto degree, the options for the student, for the graduate, are without limit.

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