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The Next Small Thing

Kristen Kulinowski brings passion to nanotechnology education and advocacy.

From oemagazine October 2004
30 October 2004, SPIE Newsroom. DOI: 10.1117/2.5200410.0009

Kristen Kulinowski

The nano realm may be tiny, but the reality of nanotechnology in our lives makes for a big job. Just ask Kristen Kulinowski, the executive director for education and public policy at the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology at Rice University (Houston, TX).

"It unites my two passions, which are education and policy," says Kulinowski. The two often overlap as she works to educate both the general public and U.S. policymakers about the often-misunderstood area of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology Education

"I spend about half my time designing and implementing programs to inform people from about the sixth grade up through the adult learner about what nanotechnology is and how it might impact human health and the environment," Kulinowski says. Rice University conducts science and engineering outreach programs for middle school, high school, and undergraduate students, as well as teacher training programs.

"We use nanotech as a means, not an end, to achieve science literacy," she says. "We use it as a hook to get people excited. You get them excited about one aspect of science and then hopefully they'll be more receptive to science and engineering in general."

This excitement began early for Kulinowski. In grade school she aspired to be a heart surgeon, and although that dream did not last, her love of science and math did. She earned a BS magna cum laude in chemistry from Canisius College (Buffalo, NY), a Jesuit college that encouraged service to community and a liberal arts education, where she fell in love with the academic setting. "I wanted to be in college forever," she says.

Her penchant for policy matters came after graduate school when a friend encouraged her to apply for the SPIE-OSA Congressional Fellowship Program. Kulinowski became the 2001­2002 Fellow and says the experience "meshed because I view policy as a way of doing service, and as a way of being more interested in science. Policy is a way to have more impact in a larger national, and increasingly international, theater especially. I still wanted to be exposed to the people who were active in science even if I wasn't doing it myself."

Responsible Nanotech

Today Kulinowski advocates responsible and sustainable nanotechnology and seeks to educate legislators about nanotech.

"We're trying to change the way emerging technologies are assessed," she says. "Right now we have a model where we wait for something bad to happen and then we try to fix it. With nanotechnology, since we're so early in its trajectory and there are so few products out on the market, we can be doing risk assessment on promising nanomaterials that look like they might make it into commerce before they make it into commerce."

"The power of nanotechnology is really in engineering the exact properties you want. We believe that with enough foresight we can engineer in the properties that we want and engineer out the unintended impact."

Another aspect of policy is public perception. A positive model for public acceptance of emerging science is the Human Genome Project. "The genome project recognized that there might be some ethical, legal, and social implications associated with mapping the human genome," Kulinowski explains. "They recognized from the outset that this could be a concern, and they built into their program funding for ethical, legal, and social implications research. There hasn't been an overwhelming backlash against mapping of the human genome, and that suggests to us that it is better to confront the issues head on."

In this effort, she says they have been successful in getting federal agencies, such as the National Toxicology Program (Research Triangle Park, NC) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (Washington, D.C.) to study nanomaterials.

Kulinowski is amazed at how far nanotechnology and government reaction have come in the last few years. She has gone from tackling panic about nanobots to organizing nanotechnology nomenclature and standards workshops for legislators.

"A year and a half ago, it was issue raising, now the emphasis is shifting toward what policies and programs should be in place," she says. "It's been really gratifying to see the community that's building around this issue."

Women in Optics

Responsible nanotechnology isn't the only issue Kulinowski advocates; she also chairs the SPIE Women in Optics (WiO) technical group. "It's still a new concept, and in a highly technical field like optics and photonics, it's important for women to support one another and have role models," she says.

With the SPIE 50th anniversary rapidly approaching, Kulinowski says the WiO group plans to celebrate the occasion with a calendar honoring women in science throughout history. "We'd like to highlight the special role that women have played and the contributions they've made, because I think they're many and numerous."

The group holds luncheons and special events at SPIE meetings throughout the year, such as the recent panel titled "Colorado Women in Optics: From Industry to Academia" at the 49th Annual Meeting in Denver, CO.

"I would like to see the participation in Women in Optics actually reflect the level of women in optics," says Kulinowski. "WiO is all about getting people together with common interests for fun, fellowship, education—to show those in training that it's possible to have a career and family, and to show them positive role models of women who have gone on to be very successful. There are some wonderful women in the Society who are doing amazing things."