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Jian Cui - Mighty tools on tiny scales: new nanoscale tools and materials to understand biological systems

Dr. Jian Cui / © Lisa Zillio

From studying single-molecule biophysical chemistry, to photon-counting nanocrystal physics, to miniaturized optical device engineering, Jian Cui has tried to acquire different skills and see from different perspectives. Now, he is in a position to apply his education and training to a new arena: biology.


What is your main scientific aspiration?

I am driven in my scientific career by two deeply held beliefs: 1) there are still profound discoveries to be made and 2) that these discoveries arise in unexpected ways. Linguistically, it is interesting to me that you “make” a discovery – you don’t “find” a discovery, but rather, through active engagement and a keen eye, you can construct the circumstances necessary for a discovery to reveal itself.

I have spent my scientific education and training trying to prepare myself for that. From studying single-molecule biophysical chemistry, to photon-counting nanocrystal physics, to miniaturized optical device engineering, I have tried to acquire different skills and see from different perspectives. Now, I am in a position to apply my education and training to a new arena: biology. Although biological systems are completely different, and from my perspective very messy, where there is a challenge, there is often also a vast array of possibilities. My hope is that by taking a fundamentally different approach, perhaps we can uncover some fundamentally new biology.


Why did you choose to join the HPC?

Ultimately, the decision to come here rested on three things: the environment, the resources, and the opportunity. First, I was very impressed with the city of Munich and its scientific ecosystem. Not only is this a nice place to live, but it is also home to several excellent scientific institutions, which permits facile access to expertise and resources. However, more important to me was that this city is an attractive destination for excellent PhD students and postdocs. My experience so far has proven this right – I am very happy with the people who have chosen to join our team!

Second, the resources secured by the HPC not only allows us to purchase the instruments and supplies that we need, but also affords us an increasingly more valuable resource: time. This is the time to explore, the time to take risks, the time to try to do something genuinely new and different.

Finally, the chance to be on the ground floor of a new research initiative seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I simply could not pass up. The mere fact that something like the HPC was launched at all indicated to me that this was a place committed to change and growth. As an outsider looking to enter a new field, this kind of mindset emboldened me.


How are you planning to answer your scientific questions?

The name of our group is the nanoPROBE Lab, or Nanomaterials and Photonics Research for Optical Bio-sensing and Engineering. Our goal is to take advantage of the physical phenomena that arise when certain materials are shrunken down to nanoscale dimensions. We are particularly interested in the field of nanoantennas, which are capable of enhancing local optical effects. Our contention is that, through creative combinations of engineered nanomaterials coupled to nano-optical detection, we can develop methods and platforms for measuring, and potentially controlling, biological processes in previously unexplored ways.


Which are your interests besides research?

Outside of research, my interests and activities can perhaps be boiled down to two things: life experimentation and communication. By life experimentation, I simply mean having new experiences and then reflecting on them. Examples can be trying different types of fitness plans, diets, sleep schedules, etc. I am not really the type of person who orders the same dish at every restaurant or has the same routine year after year. Another running theme in my life is the desire to communicate and be a better communicator. I have written in science magazines, given science lessons at primary and secondary schools, and studied (though mostly forgotten) multiple languages. Perhaps the way I live my personal life is in line with my approach to research: try new things, gain new skills, learn to connect with those who are different from you, and maybe something good comes out of that.