Here's how to become a nanoscientist or nanosystems engineer

09 January 2019 - 07:00
Image: 123RF/Kichigin Aleksandr.

Nanoscientists study structures of 100 nanometres (nm) or less. Since a nanometre only measures one billionth of a metre, it’s difficult to imagine anything smaller.

Nanotechnology is expected to become one of the most strategic and dominant technologies in the next 10 to 20 years. Nanotechnology will have an almost endless string of applications in biotechnology, biology and biomedicine.

Nanotechnology has had several commercial applications in advanced laser technology, hard coatings, photography, pharmaceuticals, printing, chemical-mechanical polishing and cosmetics. Soon there will be lighter cars using nanoparticle-reinforced polymers, insulin that can be taken orally, artificial joints made from nanoparticulate materials and low-kilojoule foods with nanoparticulate taste enhancers.

Nanoscientists create designs or prototypes for nanosystem applications, such as biomedical delivery systems and atomic force microscopes. They design or engineer nanodevices etc. using three-dimensional computer-aided design (CAD) software. They coordinate or supervise the work of suppliers or vendors in the designing, building or testing of nanosystem devices, such as lenses or probes.

They design or conduct tests on new nanotechnology products, processes, or systems and engineer production processes for specific nanotechnology applications, such as electroplating, nanofabrication, or epoxy. They conduct research related to a range of nanotechnology topics, such as packaging, heat-transfer, fluorescence detection, nanoparticle dispersion, hybrid systems, liquid systems, nanocomposites, nanofabrication, optoelectronics and nanolithography.

Daily tasks include lab work and analysis, meetings with students and internal meetings, computer work, articles to write, numerous discussions about research findings and much reading to keep up with current information.

In areas as diverse as designing medical diagnostic devices to building better batteries, from creating cosmetics to enhancing energy efficient windows, from auto and plane manufacturing to researching the nature of matter itself, knowledge of nanoscale science and technology will be increasingly important during upcoming years and decades.

As nanoscale science and technology come to have increasing impacts on many aspects of our daily lives, the opportunities for careers in these fields are expanding rapidly. A major challenge for the field is the education and training of a new generation of skilled workers.

Personal requirements

  • Have good communication skills
  • Able to work as part of a team
  • Have a very enquiring mind
  • Be extremely dedicated
  • Have strong analytical skills
  • Have determination and patience

Watch the video to learn more:

How to enter

Schooling & school subjects compulsory subjects: Mathematics, Physical Sciences 

Recommended subjects: Computer Science

National Senior Certificate meeting requirements for the relevant degree or diploma. Each university will have its own entry requirements.

What to study

Because nanoscience is such a wide field, there is not one defined path to follow. One could start with BSc Honours in Physics, Chemistry, Biochemistry or Engineering, and then specialise at Master’s and Doctorate level.

Potential fields of study include: Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Environmental Science, Agricultural Science, Engineering, Medicine, Materials Science, Forensic Science, Law and Business Ethics.

Not everyone working in the field will require a doctorate degree in one of these fields. A skilled workforce trained at a variety of levels is needed to meet the projected workforce challenge of 7 million workers.


Career opportunities, exist in areas such as:

  • Electronics / semiconductor industry
  • Materials science including textiles, polymers, packaging, amongst others
  • Car and aerospace industries
  • Sports equipment
  • Pharmaceuticals including drug delivery and cosmetics
  • Biotechnology and medical fields
  • Optoelectronics
  • Environmental monitoring and control
  • Food science including quality control and packaging
  • Forensics
  • University research
  • National security and the military
  • Medicine: diagnostics and therapeutics (e.g. drug delivery)
  • Energy: capture, storage and use, fuel cells, batteries
  • Environmental remediation: in conjunction with genetically modified microbes
  • Robotics: many uses
  • Manufacturing: self-assembly; “bottom-up” fabrication of novel and innovative materials
  • Commerce: radio frequency identification (RFID) “smart” tags

Getting started

  • Speak to a nanoscientist about this career and ask if you can observe him/her at work
  • Do research on this topic and in your particular field of interest