"Ten years from now, you'll be able to say, 'My tax dollars were in this,'" says professor Richard Haglund.
Since starting the Vanderbilt Institute of Nanoscale Science and Engineering in 2001, the school has attracted faculty and graduate students who are developing technologies with great commercial promise as they advance science on several fronts.
The potential for nanoscience appears limitless. Breaking items down to the nanoscale - a billionth of a meter or just a few atoms wide - can produce unusual results, such as aluminum being combustible and silicon and other insulators becoming conductors.
Industry officials see potential in dozens of industries. At Vanderbilt, the potential includes selective delivery of drugs, better hydrogen fuel cells and more efficient lighting.
The school is one of many universities and companies who see this nascent technology as a potential boon. The federal government is firmly behind the nanoscience movement, promising more than $1 billion annually to fund research efforts at universities and labs. Industry is spending even more, creating a large wave of money flowing into the sector.
Once the research hits a certain point, businesses are expected to emerge that take the technology to market. A recent report from Lux Research predicted that nanotechnology will impact most manufactured goods and represent $2.6 trillion in global manufacturing output by 2014.
"Industry is getting interested and 10 years from now, you'll be able to say, 'My tax dollars were in this,'" faculty member Richard Haglund says.
The group's advancement marks a significant change at Vanderbilt, which saw schools like Massachusetts Institute for Technology and Stanford University latch on early to the semiconductor revolution that fostered breakthroughs in technology, spawned new companies and created clusters that have since generated strong job growth and massive investment.
Aided by a large grant from the university to develop the infrastructure, VINSE was seen at the time as the way to avoid missing out again. The center is designed to create interdisciplinary work among faculty across the university.
"We were able to leapfrog the semiconductor revolution and move into nanotechnology," says Leonard Feldman, a physics professor and veteran of Bell Labs, who was tapped to direct VINSE.
The formation was a recognition by Vanderbilt that it was lagging in the interdisciplinary sciences, Feldman says. Led by then-new Chancellor Gordon Gee, the hope in 2001 was to create an interdisciplinary culture that would make headway in an exciting new field.
The move was unique because Vanderbilt was betting on an unproven technology. Although prevalent in products today, nanoscale science and engineering was still an abstract notion that may not pan out. That worry has faded, replaced by new projects that faculty and grad students are envisioning.
VINSE has brought together 25 faculty members from the chemistry, electrical engineering, chemical engineering, biomedical engineering, physics and mechanical engineering disciplines. The institute now houses roughly 60 graduate students and 20 research associates.
"It barely even resembles the place I came to," says Sandra Rosenthal, a 10-year veteran of Vanderbilt's chemistry department. "The amount and quality of research has really improved dramatically."
Rosenthal leads a group studying semiconducting nanocrystals that could find their way to commercialization in lighting uses.
Feldman says nano has become a part of Vanderbilt's culture.
"People in any area start thinking of issues and problems and because we have a presence, they're asking, 'Can nanoscience answer this?'"
Despite the synergies and promises, challenges await. Vanderbilt isn't alone in seeking to further develop its nano operations and is competing for money and talent with the most prestigious schools in the country - names such as Cornell, Berkley, MIT and Northwestern. Some of these schools have begun to build their own nanoscience centers that would cost Vanderbilt up to $70 million to match if its leadership set out to replace VINSE's older facilities.
Vanderbilt has so far held its own when it comes to funding from the National Science Foundation, the departments of Energy and Defense and the National Institutes of Health. But the federal government's decision to hold steady on such funding could make the battle for this necessary start-up money even more ferocious. Add to that the cost of necessary equipment, which Feldman describes as "depressingly expensive." There also are environmental concerns to take into account.
For now, though, officials like Feldman still appear more focused on the fundamentals and education rather than commercial potential.
"There will be a whole new generation of engineers who will think about problems on the atomic scale," he says.