Interview with Dr. Abdolreza Simchi
Iran has dominated the news recently in a chess match between itself and the West. From the country’s ongoing nuclear program to the capture of an American spy drone to the current threat of closing the Persian Gulf from oil tankers, fears of an unstable, aggressive Iran spring to life for the American citizen. Yet, there is another Iran that hasn’t been advanced in the media. One that Dr. Abdolreza Simchi and his research group work in everyday in the capital city of Teheran. Dr. Simchi is a distinguished nanotechnology researcher heading the Research Center for Nanostructured and Advanced Materials (RCNAM) at the Department of Material Science and Engineering of Sharif University, where he focuses on biomedical engineering and sustainable technology. Nanotechnology is a new and interdisciplinary field where scientists can engineer atom and molecules on the nanoscale, fifty thousand times thinner than a human hair.
Dr. Simchi represents a bridge between Iran and the West. He has received many awards for his work, not only from Iran, but also from Germany, the UK, and the UN. He earned his PhD in a joint program between Sharif University and the University of Vienna and then worked at the German technology institute Fraunhofer at the beginning of his career. Dr. Simchi is now ranked as the fourth nanotechnology scientist in Iran and was awarded the title of Distinguished Researcher of the Teheran Province by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Since 2001, he has written over 200 papers, authored four patents, two books, and founded the first Iranian nanotechnology journal, Scientia Iranica Nanotechnology.
The nanotechnology drive in Iran has skyrocketed over the past few years despite Western sanctions. Iranian news stations and websites are constantly highlighting a new breakthrough or conference. This past October, the Fourth Iran Nano Festival was held in Teheran, where thousands of companies and research centers showcased their breakthroughs and technological advances. Days before the festival, Dr. Nasrine Soltankhah, vice president of Iran’s Science and Technology sector made a speech where she ranked Iran as 12th in world nanotech development. Whether you are skeptical of this statement or not (they actually used the Thompson Reuters Web of Knowledge to calculate journal articles published per year to get this statistic), Iran’s nanotech development is robust and is changing Iranian society. Even nanotechnology experts in the West have been impressed with the quality of the results. Iran’s scientific establishment is heavily subsidized by its government (about 75% according to a UNESCO report). However, due to the growth of nanotechnology and the field’s focus on problem solving, Iranian entrepreneurs and infrastructure sectors are collaborating and benefiting from the scientific applications. Moreover, Iran has been pioneering national public nanotech education for schoolchildren.
I interviewed Dr. Simchi about his research, the state of nanotechnology in Iran, and how this budding field can better his people’s lives.
What sparked your interest in nanotechnology?
I was first introduced to nanotechnology when I was working in Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing and Advanced Materials (IFAM), in Bremen, Germany. At that time, the institute was involved in development of a method for preparation of silver nanoparticles distributed into a monomer to be used for fabrication of antibacterial polymers. I was very excited to see how the size of particles governs the antibacterial effect and the product can be used for fabrication of biomedical parts. I became more interested in this topic as many handicapped from the war between Iran and Iraq could be benefited from this technology. After being hired at Sharif University of Technology (SUT) as Assistant Professor and working as a consultant in the Center for High-Tech Industries Development (HTIC), I learned more about the capability of the technology for water treatment, environmental remedies, energy storage, etc. I told myself: “This is a technology that can answer many national and global issues, so this is the future!”
In the years 2003-2004, I worked hard to convince my colleagues at the Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) Department to establish a research center (RCNAM) at SUT to create a multidisciplinary framework for collaborative research in this fast-growing technology. This activity was not welcome by some, but a few were more realistic about this issue. In 2004, through strong support of the university dean, Prof. Saed Sohrabpour, HTIC and the Iran Nanotech Initiative Council (INIC), a group of Sharif professors from different departments, particularly MSE, Physics, Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, Mechanical Engineering, and Electrical Engineering, gathered together and established The Institute for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (INST) of SUT. INST was the first national institute offering a PhD Nanotechnology program. INIC has ranked SUT and particularly MSE and INST as leading academic centers for nanotechnology development for consecutive years. In conclusion, the national condition, the competitiveness of SUT orientation, and the multidisciplinary nature of nanotechnology sparked my interest in this amazing area of nano-scale world.
You were trained as a metallurgist and devoted your time to the study of alloys, composite materials, and other advanced materials, both on the nano and macro level. Why did you start researching biomedical applications as well?
This is true. I am principally a metallurgist, and specifically a particulate materials scientist. However, I always look at science and technology side-by-side and shoulder-to-shoulder. In fact, it is of prime importance to me, as an engineer, to see where and how my research output might be utilized; the maximum and direct benefit for the nation and human beings are my utmost aims. In simple words, I look towards the national interests. My people suffer from cancer (Iran is a country with high-cancer risk), environmental pollution (for instance, Tehran is one of the most polluted cities in the world), and limited water resources (dry lands). Therefore, I keep trying to combine my knowledge on particulate materials with nanotechnology, i.e. size effect, to improve healthcare via biomedical applications of materials, and to combat environmental problems. I am particularly interested in developing nanoparticles for diagnosis and therapy and to use them in tissue engineering applications.
Which disciplines is your research group comprised of? What current projects are you working on?
My research area is diverse but the main disciplines are comprised of the following areas:
Biomedical applications of nanoparticles for diagnoses, cancer therapy, and
targeted drug delivery
Nanostructured coatings and composites for tissue engineering applications
Nanostructured materials for hydrogen storage for mobile applications (green technology for automobiles)
Nanomaterials for energy harvesting from sun (solar cells) and photocatalysts for environmental issues
Light-weight structures, e.g. composite materials and functional materials, for automotive applications
As a scientist who has worked both in Iran and Europe, what have been the main challenges unique to Iran that nanotechnologists have faced and how have they have adapted?
Nanotechnology is involved with nano-scale materials and phenomena. Experimental and theoretical work in this area requires various analytical techniques and high-speed computers. Iranian nanotechnologists are basically challenged with limited access to advanced analytical techniques and research budgets. To adapt to the current situation, INIC has grounded a network between different institutes and labs to give scientists and researchers accessibility to analytical equipment. INIC also supports students, post-docs, and researchers via various grants. Through a coherent, focused, and comprehensive program, INIC aims widespread national interest on nanotechnology from schools to universities. Many colleges, universities, and institutes are now working together on multidisciplinary research areas and share their facilities, equipment, and findings.
Since 2010, your journal, Scientia Iranica Nanotechnology, can be downloaded online in PDF form. What guided you to make these articles fully available to the public?
I believe in science without borders. Iranian scientists benefit from the findings of other researchers through many international journals and books. We also like to present our findings to scientists of other nations and contribute to worldwide nanotechnology development.
In the past few years, the INIC has put forth many programs educating schoolchildren in nanotechnology. What has their approach been to make nanotech accessible?
We believe that infrastructure is an essential element and prerequisite of sustainable development. The utmost important part of infrastructure is human resources. We do look at the human resources as a chain from schoolchildren to professors, specialists, and experts. INIC is linking together different elements of this chain through its National Nanotechnology Program. Specifically, they have grounded several programs for schoolchildren. The programs are compromised of inviting lecturers to give talks, educational seminars for teachers, developing educational software to introduce basics of nanotechnology to children, distributing easily-understandable books and articles to the public, and hosting annual festivals for schoolchildren.
Do you think America’s call to increase sanctions against Iran will affect your country’s progress in nanotechnology? Will America’s push to unite Europe against Iran affect your collaborations with scientists around the world, specifically in Germany and England?
I believe sanction has two faces. On one hand, it restricts the accessibility to facilities, equipment, and materials. This part is certainly disturbing the progress. However, I see another side that somehow is good! The sanction has limited the mobility of our students and experts. I believe the strength of the country is its talented and brilliant students and well-established academic media. This is the most important difference between Iran and other neighboring countries. Over three million students have now enrolled in Iranian Universities. Hundred thousands are now registered at graduate levels. This is a true strength and advantage of Iran. As far as the American and European banning of the mobility of Iranian students via visa restriction, we enjoy more and more from forced-prohibited brain drain.
What is the wonder in rapid development of Iran in scientific publication when thousands of talented graduate students join the university annually? This is a direct consequence of well-educated students, working hard even in a tough condition. I am personally an example of this scenario (although I am not belonging to the upper 10% of talented scientists in Iran). I was unable to go to the US to visit Standford University due to the September 11 tragedy and was twice refused a visa to visit UC Berkeley. What would have happened if I had been successful to go to the US and possibly settle down? Up to now, I have graduated many talented students at SUT. They are really brilliant and I am very proud of them. Some of them left the country to continue their studies in Europe and the US but many are living in Iran and truly contribute to nanotechnology development. Since my research area is not strategic and has no dual applications (mainly biomaterials and green technologies), I enjoy collaborating with many scientists in the US, Canada, Europe, South Korea, and Japan.
The Iran Nano 2011 Festival highlighted not only Iran’s scientific progress, but also the commercialization of nanotechnology breakthroughs. Do you think market demand will play an important role in determining funding in nanotech?
For sure yes. Many factories and managers are now aware of the advantages and benefits of nanotechnology. There are high demands in industries for advance technologies, particularly under current tightened sanctions. We see more and more requests for targeted research projects. INIC encourages applied research and provides help in commercialization. In the future, market demand will definitely determine the research direction.
Where do you see nanotechnology’s greatest benefit to the Iranian people coming from?
I believe we can enjoy nanotechnology’s benefits both from improved life standard through medical cares and enhanced national gross income via advanced technologies to produce high quality products at competitive cost. The former includes any activities that advance healthcare, diagnoses, monitoring, and therapy. The latter is closely linked to industry. Various industrial sectors of Iran can benefit from nanotechnology; perhaps the most important ones include extraction of oil and gas, petrochemical industry, automotive industry, water treatment and environmental remediation, and energy sector.
Dr. Simchi’s Research Center: http://www.cnam.ir/
Institute for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology: http://nano.sharif.ir/en/?module=People
Iran Nanotechnology Initiative Council Website: http://en.nano.ir/
Vice President Soltankhah’s Announcement: http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=9007160260
Scientia Iranica Nanotechnology Online (bottom of page): http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/10263098/18/3