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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Hot science fields look to bring in college graduates

    As the world turns its attention to the pressing issues of climate change, advances in communication technology and stem cell research, college students and recent college graduates looking to thumb the cutting edge of rapidly expanding research fields are faced with a host of exciting options. While the fields discussed in this report are by no means exhaustive, they offer a glimpse of what’s on the horizon in a few key disciplines.

    Environmental science

    Environmental science is perhaps one of the fastest-growing research fields, due in large part to worldwide attention being focused on the issue of global climate change, said Tom Wilson, chair of the department of environmental sciences curriculum committee.

    “”The broadest (issue) is climate change, of course,”” Wilson said. Research on atmospheric carbon, environmental meteorology, environmental chemistry and environmental biology is booming as public attention turns to climate issues.

    “”Another hot topic, in the sense that there’s a pressing need for it, is environmental education,”” Wilson said. The UA environmental science department is currently developing a focal area in environmental education.

    There is a pressing need for people to make the connection between what cutting-edge science is coming up with, and to translate it into terms the lay public can understand, Wilson said. “”That’s where environmental education would come in, both in and out of that classroom.””

    “”We’re getting one to two students coming in as new majors (per) week now, through this fall semester,”” Wilson said. “”I think there’s been a bit of a lag time, but students are starting to realize that environmental science is a viable career that you can go into, and that you can make a living in it.””

    Chemistry

    “”The really hot areas in chemistry at the moment are optics and surface studies, studies of surface effects and things that are going on that surface of materials,”” said Steve Brown, general chemistry laboratory manager at the UA.

    Space science applications of chemistry are also gathering momentum.

    “”We’re getting this light that’s passed through the interstellar (medium), and we’re trying to figure out from that light what’s actually in the space between the stars,”” Brown said. “”But there aren’t many jobs for people who do that unless you work at the university.””

    “”In terms of employment opportunities, I think optics and surface studies are particularly big,”” Brown said.

    Optics

    The optical science field is growing so fast that the UA optical sciences center was recently upgraded and given its own college.

    “”A lot of areas are hot,”” said Jim Wyant, dean of the College of Optical Sciences. “”There are a lot of opportunities for our graduates,”” he added. “”They can essentially have as many job offers as they want.””

    Within the realm of optical science, areas of particular interest

    include imaging for medical applications and optical communications, like high-speed Internet.

    Photonics, the hybridization of optics and electronics, has garnered attention recently.

    Nanotechnology and material design is an area that will see a lot of development in years to come.

    Advances in optical communications can be linked to technological conveniences including DVDs and graphic displays.

    “”Over the last five years, we’ve graduated more Ph.D’s than any other unit on campus,”” Wyant said – on the order of 25 per year.

    Molecular and cellular biology

    Stem cell research received a recent uplift as Japanese scientists announced that they had successfully adapted human skin cells to act as stem cells, circumventing some feelings of trepidation about the ethical dilemma of using stem cells harvested from human embryos, said Thomas Lindell, UA professor emeritus of molecular and cellular biology.

    “”Although it sounds exciting, it’s going to take an exceptionally long time for these things to come to fore,”” Lindell said.

    Epigenetics, the study of the expression or suppression of genes due to environmental rather than evolutionary factors, which cause changes in biological function over very short timescales, is a new and exciting field, Lindell said.

    Epigenetics flies in the face of the old dictum that changes to the genome, and the biological traits encoded in those genes, occur only over extraordinarily long evolutionary timescales, never in a single generation. The field also reveals that changes to an individual’s DNA caused by environmental or dietary factors can occur very rapidly and can actually be passed on to the next generation.

    “”What they’re discovering is that a number of these genes are involved in some common diseases,”” Lindell said. “”If I were to start over today and latch onto some hot area it would be epigenetics.””

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