Faculty Profile: Nicholas Fang

Nicholas Fang is part of a small group of researchers from around the world who are dramatically expanding the power of light microscopes through a technique called “superlensing.”

Nicholas Fang
Nicholas Fang

Nicholas Fang is part of a small group of researchers from around the world who are dramatically expanding the power of light microscopes through a technique called “superlensing.”

“We have a long-term dream of reinventing the optical microscope in order to see things that are much smaller than what we can image right now,” said Fang, a member of the 3-D Micro- and Nanosystems group at the Beckman Institute.

The importance of this research area and of Fang’s position as a leader in it was underscored last year when he was chosen as a Technology Review 2008 Young Innovator. This honor goes to young scientists who are changing the world though their innovations.

For Fang, the honor was for his development of the first optical “superlens” that patterns nanoscale silver gratings on microscope parts for high-resolution imaging of nanoscale structures like the organelles of a cell. This technique allows the capture of visible light waves from objects smaller than the wavelength of light (approximately 400 nanometers) – something that isn’t possible with optical microscopes without using what is called a tag to illuminate the sample.

"We have a long-term dream of reinventing the optical microscope in order to see things that are much smaller than what we can image right now."
— Nicholas Fang

Fang said superlensing has resolved structures on a scale that is 10 times higher than the best light microscopes and someday, he expects, it will allow a view of cellular dynamics at a scale of 15 nanometers. This would provide scientists studying topics like cancer growth for the first time a window into such processes as they occur in real time without using a tag.

“We thought it was not even possible to see something below 400 nanometers, basically the comparable dimensions to the organelles in cells,” Fang said. “We started to realize that it is possible to use novel materials, metamaterials (like silver gratings), to excite a unique surface wave. With this surface wave, and using a thin film of silver, we may be able to focus it down to 30 nanometers and below. We want to make this as convenient as the optical microscope but offer 10 times better resolution.”

Fang said there are between 10 to 20 research groups around the world working on advancing light microscopy through similar techniques in order to give scientists unparalleled visual access to the biological world at the nanoscale.

“We are all pursuing this dream but in different manners,” he said. “We are not all using metamaterials but our goal is the same: we want to see something in real-time without using very expensive equipment but still offer more insight about life science.”

The Technology Review award wasn’t Fang’s only honor coveted by young American scientists. He also earned an NSF Early Career Award for his development of a nanoimprinting technology used for nanofabrication. Fang also has applied superlensing techniques to acoustics for improving ultrasound imaging and toward applications such as structural testing, medical screening, and so-called “cloaking” technology that could be used in submarines.

For such a young researcher, Fang has already staked out some high-profile turf. He’s done so while working in areas he never expected to, like optics and acoustics, when he was earning physics degrees back in his hometown of Nanjing, China.

“They were so well-developed I thought would not even touch them,” he said. “My instructors in optics class asked once who would pursue a career in optics and no one raised their hand because we thought everything had been taught.”

Fang’s parents are both engineers in China but it wasn’t until he came to the United States that he decided to turn his research that way, earning a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from UCLA.

“Originally physics textbooks only considered those materials systems as theoretical,” Fang said. “But now because of the advancement of technology we have much better tools, better capabilities to bring the imagined from the textbook to something engineered and practical.”
Despite his prestigious early career honors, Fang isn’t slowing down in his quest to turn the theoretical into the practical. He is currently embarking on a collaboration with Beckman colleague Rohit Bhargava in the area of tissue engineering. They are seeking to engineer artificial cancer models – Fang calls it “cancer in a test tube” – that would mimic the proliferation of cancer cells in tissue. In this collaboration, as with the superlensing projects, Fang’s goal is to provide a clearer picture of how the world works at the smallest scales.

“It has to mimic, to the maximum extent, a cellular environment,” Fang said. “My philosophy is rather simple: we want to simplify this picture of how cancer develops.”

This article is part of the Fall 2009 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.