Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
I told him that it was like aliens. Like flying saucers. Like Star Wars. Like Transformers. But no matter what analogy I made, the little boy standing in front of me could not grasp the concept of science fiction.
“Does that mean you can’t shrink this?” The little boy revealed a small, green HotWheels car from his pocket. “Mrs. Frizzle can shrink her bus so small it swims in your blood, and you guys can’t shrink this? This car is way too big for my ants to drive!”
He stared at me with sincere and confused eyes, and it pained me, knowing that I would be the source of this young boy’s disillusionment. I knelt down to meet him at eye level. “I’m sorry dude, but the Magic School Bus is science fiction,” I responded. “It’s science fiction. It isn’t real life.”
Of all of my moments working as a salesman at Geppetto’s, a local toy store, this one was both the most memorable and most significant to my life. While the little boy eventually realized his quest for ant-sized cars was futile, his whimsical notions of miniature transportation and intravascular travel lingered in my mind. I pictured tiny submarines being driven alongside bacteria, and wondered why technology had yet to conquer the microscopic realm. How come humans, I contemplated, who have the intellectual capacity to send a spacecraft millions of miles to Mars, have yet to send an explorer into our own human bodies?
In my determined search for answers, I scoured through the Internet and my AP Biology textbook for information about transportation at the molecular level. Through this, I discovered many different ways a nanosized vessel could be propelled, such as flagella (twisting tails) or microfilaments (like train tracks within cells). Still, I was stumped as to why tiny machines were not currently swimming in my veins.
I acted on my curiosity and sought out an internship at the Department of Nanoengineering at UCSD under Professor Joseph Wang. I approached the internship expecting to simply acquire a few insights on the mechanics of bacterial and cellular movement. Instead, I was exposed to a whole new world of science. Comparing life as we perceive it with life in the nanosized world, I learned, is tantamount to comparing the Earth to the moon. In the realm of the nanomotor, water molecules become magnetic BB gun pellets that push and pull randomly in a process known as Brownian motion. Low Reynolds number makes moving through air or water feel like wading through honey. And any usable momentum? Forget about it. Inertial properties are so minimized that nanomotors are either accelerating or stopped.
Through my research, I was able to delve into this exotic world. Because nanoengineering is still a budding field, many of the specifics of motion and dynamics at the nanoscale are unknown. Thus, when I was assigned to a project designing and testing bubble-propelled microjets, I felt as if I was exploring a previously undiscovered realm.
My first days of laboratory experience were both exciting and nerve-racking. Producing and testing nanowires while sporting a UCSD lab coat and purple nitrile gloves made me feel like a pioneer on an ambitious search for answers. However, since I was working with scholars that already had several years of nanoengineering experience, I generally had little confidence in my own ideas and opinions. During our first project meeting, however, I found inspiration in the form of children. I remembered that while coaching a third and fourth grade basketball team and working at Geppetto’s, many of the suggestions and ideas of the kids were, despite a certain level of simplicity, still very interesting and thought provoking to me. Applying this to myself, I felt compelled to ask many questions and express my thoughts and opinions, however simplistic they were, during this first meeting. As a result, many of my ideas ended up being implemented into the final experiment, including an idea of mine regarding a method for etching grooves on a silver wire, which was eventually introduced as a crucial step in the procedure for producing these bubble-propelled microjets. Thus, I evolved from an explorer to an early settler, helping to set the foundations of a new world.
Nanotechnology is still in its nascent stages. Nevertheless, it is progressing at a rapid rate, and I am certain that its unbelievable potential applications will manifest themselves in the near future. It could save lives; imagine cancer-seeking missiles rocketing through your body or microscopic capsules that release insulin upon detection of high blood sugar. Environmental concerns could be quelled with water-purifying nanomachines and oil-consuming robots to clean disastrous oil spills. Even more intriguing is the notion of accelerated evolution, in which the structure organic molecules, such as enzymes or DNA, could be edited very precisely and specifically. I can almost hear the doctor saying, “You have a family history of sickle-cell anemia? No problem, I’ll just send these little guys over to your blastocyst to check it out and fix it if needed.”
And to think, all my interest in nanoengineering was spurred by the simple question of a little boy, a boy I have not seen since our one and only encounter at Geppetto’s. He came to me with imagination and vision, and I turned him away citing the falseness of science fiction. If only I could tell him what I have learned. That I have witnessed first hand the bizarre physics of an alien world. That I have contributed to the first steps of conquering a foreign field. That I have seen glimpses into the advanced, robot-filled future. If I ever see him again, I will tell him: through the unlimited creativity and curiosity of man, even science fiction can one day converge with reality.
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