Million-Dollar Idea Breathes New Life into Mature Technology
PRESTIGIOUS KECK FOUNDATION GRANT PLACES BC SQUARELY IN COMPETITIVE SCIENTIFIC LANDSCAPE
It has been said that what's old becomes new again. Evelyn J. and Robert A. Ferris Professor of Physics and Department Chair Mike Naughton couldn't agree more. That's because the idea upon which he and a multidisciplinary team of University researchers have based their groundbreaking new project has roots in a decades-old technology. Their latest brainchild is so promising that the W. M. Keck Foundation has awarded BC a prestigious $1-million grant to develop it.
The project: a nanoscale coaxial optical microscope (NCOM). When completed in three years, the NCOM will join a new class of superlenses, which uses novel technologies to manipulate light and make visible tiny particles at resolutions never before imaginable. The essential feature of the nanocoax is similar in design to coaxial cables—which have been around for more than 150 years and have transported radio and television signals for the past 50—except a million times smaller.
"It's a well-known, old story that's never been told at this scale," says Naughton. "When we began discussing our idea with former ham radio operators, they were at first confused. After thinking about it some more, they said, 'Of course it will work!'"
In addition to Naughton, the NCOM research team includes Professor of Physics Krzysztof Kempa, Microscopy Imaging Facility Manager Joshua Rosenberg, and Research Associate Greg McMahon in the University's Integrated Sciences Clean Room and Nanofabrication Facility. The project also provides funding for a postdoctoral student, three graduate students, and at least 12 undergraduate students over the next three years.
"None of our work can happen without students," says Naughton, who is also the proud father of two Eagles. "The best part is seeing them get it, take ownership of it, and live for it."
FAR REACHING IMPACT
With the proposed NCOM aiming to achieve a 10-fold improvement in resolution, scientists would be able to see in much finer detail what is occurring inside living systems at the cellular, sub-cellular, and sub-protein level. Therefore, this technology has broad implications for biology, medicine, genetics, therapeutics, and related fields.
The research team has already envisioned some unique applications, for which BC holds several issued and pending patents. One example is optical nanosurgery, which would use arrays of coaxes that convert light into electricity so that doctors can illuminate their surgical path while simultaneously frying diseased cells. This could hold particular promise for patients with neurological disorders, such as epilepsy, because the pinpoint accuracy would enable surgeons to avoid healthy regions of the brain that affect speech and other functions.
Based in Los Angeles, Calif., the W. M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 by the late William Myron Keck, founder of Superior Oil Company, who envisioned a philanthropic institution that would provide far-reaching benefits for humanity. The foundation supports pioneering discoveries in science, engineering, and medical research, as well as the effective involvement of students in research.
"This grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation gives us the ability, and puts tools at our disposal, to find and follow through on ideas," says Naughton. "Ideas are important, but it's more important to execute on them."
Under the Microscope: Integrated Sciences Q&A
Evelyn J. and Robert A. Ferris Professor of Physics and Department Chair Mike Naughton provides his perspective on the importance of integrated sciences, a strategic priority that is taking BC’s academic programming into bold, new directions.
HOW DO YOU DEFINE INTEGRATED SCIENCES?
"I define it as uncompartmentalized, because the best work can no longer be executed or conceived in just one scientific discipline. For example, I can make an array of coaxes that might work as a retinal implant, but I cannot get it into the human eye without the help of biochemists, electrical engineers, and others."
ONCE YOU HAVE AN IDEA, HOW DO YOU IDENTIFY WHOM TO WORK WITH TO DEVELOP IT?
"I Google it. This allows me to search published literature to determine whether similar work has already been published and to identify whom we might partner with to make the idea a reality."
WHAT'S THE BEST PART ABOUT COLLABORATING ACROSS DISCIPLINES?
"The fun part is that integrated sciences encourage dreaming. If I can imagine it, then I can find someone who can help me get it there. A little bit of knowledge is no longer extremely dangerous."