August 19, 2015

Setting Ground Rules for Nanotechnology Research

This mesocosm used by the Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology (CEINT)
is basically a small, self-contained ecosystem with embedded sensors that is used to study
how nanoparticles interact with all aspects of a natural system.

Two new projects set the stage for nanotechnology research to move into Big Data

(August 19, 2015)  In two new studies, researchers from across the country spearheaded by Duke University faculty have begun to design the framework on which to build the emerging field of nanoinformatics.

Nanoinformatics is, as the name implies, the combination of nanoscale research and informatics. It attempts to determine which information is relevant to the field and then develop effective ways to collect, validate, store, share, analyze, model and apply that information -- with the ultimate goal of helping scientists gain new insights into human health, the environment and more.

In the first paper, published on August 10, 2015, in the Beilstein Journal of Nanotechnology, researchers begin the conversation of how to standardize the way nanotechnology data are curated.
Because the field is young and yet extremely diverse, data are collected and reported in different ways in different studies, making it difficult to compare apples to apples. Silver nanoparticles in a Florida swamp could behave entirely differently if studied in the Amazon River. And even if two studies are both looking at their effects in humans, slight variations like body temperature, blood pH levels or nanoparticles only a few nanometers larger can give different results. For future studies to combine multiple datasets to explore more complex questions, researchers must agree on what they need to know when curating nanomaterial data.

“We chose curation as the focus of this first paper because there are so many disparate efforts that are all over the road in terms of their missions, and the only thing they all have in common is that somehow they have to enter data into their resources,” said Christine Hendren, a research scientist at Duke and executive director of the Center for the Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology (CEINT). “So we chose that as the kernel of this effort to be as broad as possible in defining a baseline for the nanoinformatics community.”

The paper is the first in a series of six that will explore what people mean -- their vocabulary, efinitions, assumptions, research environments, etc. -- when they talk about gathering data on nanomaterials in digital form. And to get everyone on the same page, the researchers are seeking input from all stakeholders, including those conducting basic research, studying environmental implications, harnessing nanomaterial properties for applications, developing products and writing government regulations.

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