The magic of light: illuminating the biology

By Fei Xia

When I first learned about the wave-particle property of light in high school, I became fascinated by this mysterious existence in nature. Light is so common that we sometimes ignore the magic of light. We enjoy the sunshine on beach for warmth and healthy skin color; we are used to greeting the colorful world each day; we appreciate the help of glasses and contact lens to correct our vision. Yet, all of these depend on the power of light. Light brings us warmth, visions, imagination, and ultimately, the tool to explore the biological world.

The light microscope is a tool that students use to observe tiny microscopic objects, usually the cells. Since its invention in the 17th century, scientists have never stopped efforts in improving the performance of light microscope. At the same time, the light source for the microscope used to illuminate the biology has been developed with various options that can cope with a wide variety of applications. One of the most powerful light sources is the laser. With the help of laser, we can now not only use the light to observe the biological objects (light microscope), but also manipulate them (optical tweezers, optogenetics), modify them and even fix them (laser surgery). More practical application of light is that it can be used in the clinical scenarios. Some types of light microscope have been applied to the clinics to help monitor the cancer cells and the blood vessels for diagnosis purpose, such as Raman microscopy, optical endoscopy and optical coherent microscopy. Moreover, since the laser is noninvasive to humans and has strong power to generate forces, it is suitable for human surgery. It is like a magical scissor that can go through the skin, but not actually hurt it. Now, light is not just a common existence in life but is a gift from nature that helps us uncover the unknown, understand ourselves, monitor our health and improve our well beings.

A light microscope I was involved in development for my undergraduate thesis in China. It is capable of imaging the brain activity of zebrafish. Read more relevant information here.

Because I’ve been appreciating the magic of light, I chose to study Optical Engineering as my undergraduate major in China. Later, after 4 years studying optics and engineering, I am now pursuing a Ph.D. degree studying Biomedical Optics (under the Biomedical Engineering department) at Cornell University. I am now working on developing a novel light microscope that can see into biology with unprecedented depth. This is with a hope to see deeper into the brain with high resolution compared to the current instruments used in the hospital and research. I hope someday I can use the tool I created to study more of the interesting and important biological problems related to our health. Also, I warmly welcome people who are working or interested in this field to contact me (email: fx43 (at) cornell (dot) edu) for further communications and idea exchange. I would really like to hear from you and have your comments.

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