An electrical engineer at The University of Texas at Arlington is developing an all-liquid optofluidic laser that could better detect cancer in the comfort of a doctor’s office.
The new generation laser also could be used for other biosensing applications and fundamental biological and medical research as well.
The National Science Foundation has awarded a five-year, $500,000 Faculty Early Career Development or CAREER Program grant to Assistant Professor Yuze “Alice” Sun, a UTA assistant professor of electrical engineering, to create technology that will lead to a versatile biosensing platform featuring exceptional detection sensitivity, selectivity and throughput.
Most lasers are semiconductor-based and require solid material to create cavities to confine light. In optofluidic lasers, two-phase liquids are controlled using microfluidics and nanofluidics to form a highly efficient optical microcavity. The all-liquid nature makes the laser adaptive and achieves high-precision tuning in an unprecedented manner.
“Optofluidic lasers are unique because the microlaser can be achieved through ‘smart’ self-assembly at the liquid-liquid interface,” Sun said. “Because of this unique structure, the optofluidic laser is biocompatible and bioconfigurable. It could eventually be applied to in-vivo biosensing, although this is beyond the scope of the current project.”
Sun said she initially will explore using the optofluidic laser to detect biomarkers for cancer diagnosis and possibly other genetic disorders at the molecular and cellular level.
“This could someday lead to the creation of a point-of-care platform for clinicians to use in an office, rather than having to send samples away for analysis,” she said.
Sun’s CAREER Award is a personal feather in her cap, but also reflects a greater commitment to innovative, transformative research at UTA, said Duane Dimos, the University’s vice president for research.
“Dr. Sun’s CAREER Award represents the NSF’s stamp of approval of her status as a rising star in her field. Her work shows the sophistication of a seasoned researcher and is a stellar example of UTA’s impact on health and the human condition,” Dimos said. “The University also is committed to making technological advancements that help people live longer, healthier and happier lives, and her research exemplifies this commitment.”
Sun’s work is representative of how UTA is advancing research in the area of health and the human condition under the Strategic Plan 2020: Bold Solutions | Global Impact. She is one of two UTA CAREER Award winners to be announced so far this year: Yi Hong, an assistant bioengineering professor, also has received a five-year, $500,000 NSF CAREER Award for a project titled, “Dopant-free conductive bioelastomer development.”
Five UTA assistant professors have been awarded the NSF CAREER Award grants recently:
- Majie Fan in the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department received $485,627 in 2015 to better understand the Rocky Mountains and how their modern, elevated landscape came to be.
- W. Ashley Griffith in the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department received $400,000 in 2014 to study rock structures’ reaction to earthquakes, meteor impacts and explosions.
- Hyejin Moon in the Mechanical and Aerospace Department received $400,000 in 2013 to support her work with microfluidic devices, which promise to improve 3D tissue and cell sample analyses.
- Baohong Yuan in the Bioengineering Department received $407,163 in 2013 to more accurately create images for deep tissue, which could lead to earlier cancer detection.
- Fuqiang Liu in the Materials Science and Engineering Department received $400,000 in 2013 to improve methods for capturing, storing and transmitting solar energy.
Dimos called Sun’s work with liquid optical lasers innovative and the type of research that the NSF expects when awarding CAREER grants.
“Dr. Sun’s award demonstrates the University’s commitment to providing consistent opportunities for junior faculty members’ research,” Dimos said. “Dr. Sun’s work in the lab and her commitment to her students shows the power of UTA engineers to change the world for the better.”
The College of Engineering has offered support for the last year in a push to increase the success of early CAREER faculty. Several of those assistant professors visited with program directors in Washington D.C. to discuss how to successfully get their research funded. In addition, the College hosted a workshop where young faculty reviewed successful CAREER proposals and worked with program directors to write proposals in such a way that they’d have a good chance of success. Each of the CAREER winners this year took advantage of this program.
Including her CAREER Award, Sun has been the primary investigator on research grants totaling more than $900,000 since beginning her career in 2013. She has been involved with several other projects totaling nearly $1 million as a co-principal investigator in that time. Her research interests include optofluidic biomedical and chemical sensing; nanophotonics and biophotonics; microfluidics and point-of-care devices; and bio-inspired photonic devices and systems.
Sun is a member of the Optical Society of America and Chair of IEEE Photonics Society Fort Worth Chapter. She was a visiting research fellow at the National Institutes of Health after earning her doctoral degree at the University of Michigan in 2011, and has authored or co-authored more than 25 journal articles. Sun is a recipient of Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement Award, ORAU, in 2015.
Sun’s arrival bolstered UTA’s work in photonics, which features leaders in the field such as Robert Magnusson, Weidong Zhou and Michael Vasilyev. Combined, the three professors have been responsible for about 40 patents and patent applications, and more than $6 million in research funding as primary investigators. They are each Fellows of professional organizations in their field.
Currently, Sun is principal investigator and Zhou is co-PI on a $400,000 NSF grant to develop a handheld device that could analyze a person’s breath to reveal whether certain dangerous gases are present that need more immediate medical attention.
The Faculty Early Career Development Program is the NSF’s most prestigious award for junior faculty. Winners are outstanding researchers, but also are expected to be outstanding teachers through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research at their home institutions. The goal of the program is to identify faculty who have potential to become leaders in their fields and give them a significant grant to begin to realize that potential.