Some of the best and brightest researchers are just starting to cut their teeth in the photonics industry. With goals of making a positive difference in the world, they’re working with graphene, broadband lasers, quantum cascade lasers, LEDs, photonic crystals, and in the fields of biophotonics, nanophotonics, imaging microscopy, spectroscopy and more — and they’re doing so with passion and enthusiasm.
This month we are showcasing some of the most incisive young, early-career engineers and researchers in the world, whose innovative work is already earning awards and international recognition. Talent is abundant among them, and from what we’ve seen so far, their work has only just begun. This 15-year-old high school junior turned musical indecision into a ticket to the White House. Sierra Seabrease transformed an old abandoned piano in her youth tech center, the Digital Harbor Foundation in Baltimore, into the “Jukebox Piano,” a fully functioning jukebox that plays songs from an ever-changing Spotify playlist. Presented at the 2015 White House Science Fair, the instrument uses LEDs, a microphone and other technology to create an interactive light show that corresponds to the music being played. Electronic components connect the piano keys to a digital playlist interface.
Photo courtesy of Sierra Seabrease.
“At the Digital Harbor Foundation, we always play music in the space, but it’s a hassle finding an appropriate playlist and who is going to play it,” she said. “We also had an abandoned piano that we wanted to do something with because we couldn’t get rid of it. I combined both of these problems with one simple solution.”
In addition to being an explorer of technology, Seabrease is also passionate about encouraging other young women to expand their technological horizons and get involved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). She established the foundation’s Makerettes Club, a group of female students who meet and foster each other’s technical skills.
“I absolutely love seeing women in STEM,” she said. “It’s depressing seeing a career completely overrun by one sex, when I know that women are interested in such things but shooed away from them. I feel like women stepping up and going against society’s standards is such a big change and is working up to complete equality between men and women.”
For 32-year-old Florian Wendler, who recently received his PhD from the Technical University of Berlin in Germany, creating positive change in the world via his research is an ultimate goal. “I want to do research that makes a difference, is beneficial for society, or can be exploited for new technological applications,” he said, while at the same time investigating “new insights into the fundamental processes of nature.”
Photo courtesy of Florian Wendler.
His study of carrier dynamics in Landau-quantized graphene and a subsequent paper — “Efficient Auger scattering in Landau-quantized graphene,” which he authored along with Martin Mittendorff, Stephan Winnerl and Manfred Helm, all researchers at Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf in Germany — garnered the Best Student Paper Award at the Ultrafast Phenomena and Nanophotonics conference at SPIE Photonics West earlier this year. The research involved measuring polarization-resolved differential transmission spectra in graphene under a high magnetic field. Initial results were puzzling — namely that one of the signals was reversed. Auger scattering clarified the unexpected results, and ultimately demonstrated that under certain conditions, it can outweigh the optical excitation.
“We have discovered a case where an optical pulse is used to transfer electrons to a specific energy level (a Landau level),” Wendler said, “but Auger scattering is so strong that instead of an increase of the number of electrons, the number of electrons in this level decreases.”
Understanding the dynamics of electrons and optically excited charge carriers in graphene could lead to development of new types of broadband lasers. Wendler is furthering his innovative work in this area now as a postdoctoral researcher at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.
“I examine how the electrons behave (scatter with other electrons, phonons or impurities) in this material and try to find interesting effects that could possibly be exploited for future applications,” he said.
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Ward Newman credits his high school chemistry teacher for spurring his interest in science and engineering. He also credits his professors at the University of Alberta (UAlberta) — where he received his undergrad degree and is currently working toward his PhD — with piquing his interest in photonics and optics.
“Photonics is an absolute pillar in modern technology and society, as evidenced by devices and technology that we use every day,” said the 27-year-old UAlberta PhD candidate. “I believe that continued innovation in photonics will yield positive technological and societal change.”
Photo courtesy of Ward Newman.
Newman received the 2014 SPIE-sponsored John Kiel Scholarship, awarded to a student whose work demonstrates such continued innovation, as well as “potential for long-term contribution to the field of optics and optical engineering.”
Right now, he is focusing his research on engineering spontaneous emission and dipole-dipole interactions with metamaterial nanostructures.
“We are showing with both theory and experiment that metamaterials fundamentally change van der Waals’ interactions,” he said. “In particular, I have been able to show that metamaterials allow Förster resonance energy transfer to take place over 100-nm distances, whereas it is almost always otherwise limited to the extreme near-field of molecules (<12 nm).”
Newman has immersed himself in the industry. In addition to research work, he has been an instructor of electrical and computer engineering at UAlberta, and once he completes his PhD program, he aspires to become a professor at the University of Northern British Columbia in his hometown of Prince George.
“I enjoy teaching and research very much and would love to create spin-off technology and companies from my research,” he said. “I love photonics because it is an intersection between electronics, material science, quantum physics and classical physics.”
Newman was the founding president of UAlberta’s Optical Society of America Student Chapter in 2011, and served as chair of the 2012 Faculty of Engineering Graduate Student Research Symposium.
The cancer research of 25-year-old Kirby Campbell is, unfortunately, personal.
“So many people are affected, including many of my friends and family, so I knew since my undergraduate career that I wanted to join the fight against the horrible disease.”
A PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison), Campbell is working on an imaging tool for detecting precursor lesions for early diagnoses of ovarian cancer. Since ovarian cancer remains the most deadly gynecological cancer, its survival rate is highly dependent on the stage of the disease upon diagnosis. Due to vague symptoms and a lack of effective clinical screening or imaging tests, most diagnoses are too late.
Photo courtesy of Kirby Campbell.
“We are utilizing collagen-specific second-harmonic generation imaging microscopy and optical scattering measurements to probe structural differences in dynamically remodeling connective tissue that makes up the extracellular matrix,” Campbell said. “We have been working on this for the past couple years and are really excited about the results.”
Campbell was runner-up in the JenLab Young Investigator Award at SPIE Photonics West 2015 for his paper, “Determination of the spectral dependence of reduced scattering and quantitative SHG imaging for detection of fibrillar changes in ovarian cancer.”
Campbell also helps run the UW-Madison student chapters of SPIE and OSA, performing outreach in and around the Madison area at various science festivals and summer camps. He performs light demos for kids in an effort to spark their interest in photonics at an early age.
“I think it is safe to say — and my friends and family can attest to this — that I am pretty much obsessed with light,” he said. “I have always been so fascinated by its power and behavior. Our world has come so far in developing technology for its use, but we have only scratched the surface.”
17-year-old Achal Fernando-Peiris received an honorable mention at the 2014 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, the world’s largest precollege science competition. In Peiris’s project, “Fabricating an Artificial Nose Using Mesoporous Photonic Crystals,” he sought to create a prototype that could sense all 10 basic smells.
“I was sitting in class and instead of paying attention, I was reading an article by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh about how humans can sense just 10 basic smells,” he said. “I thought about how crazy it was that everything we smell boils down to just 10 elements. I knew I needed to investigate it more.”
Photo courtesy of Chris Ayers/Society for Science & the Public.
And investigate he did. Peiris worked in a laboratory at Kenyon College where he fabricated an artificial nose that could respond uniquely to the specific 10 smells; the device could be used to smell bombs and pollutants, as well as to assist those suffering from smell loss.
“Apparently after the age of 60, humans lose a large percentage of their ability to smell,” he said. “It’s a big problem, especially for fires or emergencies like that.”
Peiris synthesized mesoporous photonic crystals to mimic an optical nose. Depending on the chemical that infiltrates their pores, the crystals produce optical responses at specific wavelengths, due to the changes associated with the index of refraction of the composite structure. As various chemicals infiltrated the pores, the reflectivity of the mesoporous photonic crystal was monitored. Before infiltration, nine pixels of the same sample were reacted with different alcoxysilanes in order to make the chemical identities of the pores different and allow one to differentiate two smells with the same index of refraction. Once the chemicals infiltrated, a spectrometer showed a shift in reflectivity of each pixel, forming a fingerprint for each smell. RBG color analysis was then performed on digital images obtained during infiltration, confirming the spectroscopy results.
The artificial nose can also sense odorless chemicals such as carbon monoxide. Peiris has been working on chemical quantification for the past few months, looking to broaden the device’s potential applications.
After earning a master’s degree in chemistry and biochemistry from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, 28-year-old Amelie Heuer-Jungemann had no plans to enter the photonics industry when she started her PhD program at the University of Southampton in England several years ago. It was something she “merely stumbled into” during her course work, but she soon “learned about the beauty of photonics.”
She cites biophotonics as an area of particular interest; biological samples and related work have always fascinated her, so her research soon gravitated to this branch of photonics.
Photo courtesy of Amelie Heuer-Jungemann.
“Thanks to highly advanced light-microscopy techniques, we are able to see the most amazing events occurring live before our eyes within living systems,” Heuer-Jungemann said. “I think this, for me, has to be one of the greatest inspirations for working in photonics and for working with experts on creating even more advanced optical imaging systems.”
She garnered the 2015 Ocean Optics Young Investigator Award for “Programming nanoparticle assembly,” a paper she coauthored with Southampton associate professor Antonios G. Kanaras and submitted as part of the Colloidal Quantum Dots for Biomedical Applications IX conference at the 2015 BiOS/Photonics West Symposium. In the paper, she and Kanaras showed that nanoparticle assembly formation could be triggered by spontaneous processes (DNA hybridization, DNA-peptide recognition) or by external stimuli (light).
Heuer-Jungemann has several other achievements under her belt, including receipt of the Silver Award for Biological and Biomedical Sciences from SET for BRITAIN. The doctoral prize grant, funded by the U.K.’s Engineering and Physical Science Research Council, allows her to develop an original research project during her postdoctoral one-year fellowship. She also earned the William H. Perkin Prize for Organic Chemistry during her time at Heriot-Watt.
Heuer-Jungemann is continuing her research in biophotonics, namely bio-nanotechnology, with an ultimate goal of securing a lectureship position with her own research group. And she isn’t ruling out a Nobel Prize either.
“You’ve got to aim high, right?”
Evan P. Perillo
For 25-year-old Evan P. Perillo, the inspiration for photonics research comes from his childhood hobbies.
“I am very spatially and visually oriented, and for this reason, optics and photonics have always appealed to me,” he said. “When I was younger, I built tons of Legos. Now I can see that working in a microscopy lab is like ‘Legos for adults.’”
Photo courtesy of Evan P. Perillo.
More recently, he has found inspiration in the work of Dr. Eric Betzig, a recent Nobel Laureate and researcher at Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus. Betzig’s work with superresolution and pulse multiplexing essentially laid the groundwork for Perillo’s award-winning innovation, the TSUNAMI 3D single-particle tracking microscope, for which he received a PicoQuant Young Investigator Award, presented earlier this year during SPIE Photonics West. The corresponding paper was recently accepted for publication in Nature Communications.
The innovative TSUNAMI (Tracking Single-particles Using Nonlinear and Multiplexed Illumination) technology is a new approach to molecular-scale particle tracking. Using multiplexed two-photon excitation, Perillo has been able to pinpoint the location of a single fluorescently labeled molecule to an extremely high degree of accuracy (<30 nm) in three dimensions and with a time resolution down to 50 µs. He has also shown that single epidermal growth factor molecules (EGF) in live cells and tissue models can be tracked, and has been able to observe EGF endocytosis in real time at the nanometer scale.
Perillo is currently a third-year graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, pursuing a PhD in biomedical engineering. His work focuses on the development of new optical microscopy techniques — spatiotemporal multiplexing, two-photon excitation and superresolution microscopy — with which to study live cell biology.
“Essentially my research can be described as engineering at the intersection of cell biology, optics and photonics,” he said. “In the future I see myself as contributing to further advances in the optical microscopy field. I believe that optical microscopy will be the key to unraveling some of the mysteries of biology and I hope to be some part of that.”