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  NSF and DARPA fund super-resolution light microscopy and neurodegenerative disease research

Dr. Shu JiaDr. Shu Jia , faculty member of the Department of Biomedical Engineering within the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, recently received research funding from Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

As a 2016 DARPA Young Faculty awardee, Jia received funding to develop a new super-resolution light microscopy system to enhance the study of cells, tissues, and organ systems. The DARPA award will support Jia’s project, Wavefront-Engineered, High-Speed Super-Resolution Microscopy for Nanometer-Scale, Live-Tissue Imaging.

The research is based on a technique called point spread function engineering, which can modify how light is propagated within an imaging system to achieve better imaging capability. By exploring and implementing a new type of optical non-diffracting waveforms, the light within a microscope can propagate in a dramatically different way from normal light. One typical feature is that it will not spread out as much as described by the usual diffraction effect of light. This allows people to image further deeper into biological samples. In addition, it also provides better 3D resolution and is more robust to scattering effect in biological tissues.

The advancement of our understanding of biology has been greatly reliant on observations of cells. Light microscopy, especially fluorescence microscopy, has evolved to observe smaller specimens with greater resolution. The spatial resolution of a microscope is defined as the smallest distance in an image in which two distinct points can be distinguished. Because of the diffraction of light, resolution had previously been thought to have a theoretical limit from what is called Abbe's diffraction limit of light (~200-300 nanometers). Recent emergence of super-resolution imaging techniques has surpassed this limit, allowing visualization of cellular and sub-cellular structures with ~10-20 nanomater resolution at the near-molecular-scale. This advance provides thriving opportunities for exploring the complex structure, dynamics and function of biological molecules. Due to the significant impact of these new techniques, the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to the development of super-resolution fluorescence microscopy.

The highly interdisciplinary team who will participate in this DARPA award consists of experts from physics, computer science, engineering, and biology. In collaboration with researchers in Pharmacology and the School of Medicine at Stony Brook University. The lab expects their new technologies will provide new insight and solutions to challenges in biological and ultimately clinical research.

In addition to the DARPA award, Jia received a grant in July 2016 from NSF’s Biophotonics Program.  The NSF award will fund discovery and understanding of the brain, improve healthcare, and enhance infrastructure. The award will also lay the foundation for collaborative research with the SUNY Buffalo campus.

The Jia Laboratory aims to attain a better understanding of the molecular basis for the functions of tissues and organisms. To achieve the goal, the group investigates the physical and engineering principles underlying single-molecule imaging in complex biological materials, and utilizes these principles to develop new biophotonic methods for super-resolution microscopy. These methods include optical physics, optical wavefront engineering, single-molecule biophysics, adaptive optics, phase microscopy, large-data processing, advanced instrumentation, and nano-fabrication.

First trained as an applied physicist and electrical engineer and later a bioimaging expert, Dr. Jia is passionate about advancing imaging technology with new physical concepts and engineering design.  Dr. Jia received his PhD in electrical engineering and PhD minor in physics from Princeton University. He was a post doctorate fellow at Harvard University from 2010-2014. Dr. Jia has been an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering since 2015.


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