I still believe that science, from time to time, needs to question its purpose and "reinvent itself...."
leader of the Advanced Biomedical Science and Technology Group in ORNL's
Life Sciences Division, is one of ORNL's most prolific researchers. Born
in Vietnam and schooled in Europe, he conducted research that has brought
him considerable recognition through seven R&D 100 awards, six licensed
technologies, more than 300 scientific journal articles, and six books.
Q. When and why did you decide to become a scientist?
My parents had instilled in me the value of education and my interest in science, even when I attended high school in Vietnam. My father used to tell me that, "unlike material wealth, which can be lost any time, an education will remain with you for the rest of your life." In graduate school I really started to seriously consider a career in research. Following undergraduate studies in physics, I did my Ph.D. thesis work in biophysical chemistry in Zurich at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, known as ETH (Eidgenosische Technische Hochschule), where I received my real first introduction to research. ETH is where Einstein completed his formal scientific education and where Wolfgang Pauli did his work. The school was also one of Europe's epicenters for quantum physics that changed our worldview, and the department there where I did my graduate work had several Nobel Prize winners. This was the early 1970s, just after the May 1968 student revolution, which began in France and later spread throughout Europe. We, as students, were interested in so many life topics, and we often questioned the meaning and purpose of existence. In classes we read physics and chemistry books, but out of class we were immersed in books by Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Carl Jung, and Jiddu Krishnamurti. During that period almost every student thought or dreamed, often in a na´ve and innocent way, that he or she was going to "reinvent the world." In some respect, this "existentialist period" of my student life has continued to influence my thoughts about scientific research. I still believe that science, from time to time, needs to question its purpose and "reinvent itself" in order to refresh itself from outdated beliefs and old paradigms.
Q. What has been the most notable turn, or change, in your research over the past decade?
While the overall goal of our group has always been directed at the development of advanced technologies for the protection of the environment and improvement of human heath, there has been some gradual evolution in our research activities from an environmental to a biological focus over the past two decades. Since the mid-1990s systems biology, an approach promoted earlier by a few forward-looking scientists, is now emerging as an important way to study and control complex systems. We know now that all biological components in the human body, from individual genes to entire organs, function and interact together in a well-orchestrated network of biological processes involving a series of intricate and interconnected pathways, to promote normal development and sustain health. In this area of research, my group is now investigating advanced tools such as nanobiosensors, optical tweezers, near-field nanoprobes, and nanoimaging systems, which have the potential to provide powerful ways to diagnose diseases noninvasively, interrogate the cell at the gene level, and fight diseases at the molecular level. I believe that systems biology is an idea whose time has come.
Q. Did your previous research prepare you for ORNL's nanotechnology thrust, what's been termed "nano-bio-info"?
At ORNL our research group was already "going nano when nano wasn't cool." About a decade ago, one of my previous co-workers, Jean-PierreAlarie, and I developed the first nanobiosensor with an antibody probe for the detection of a cancer-causing agent, benzo[a]pyrene. Recently, my graduate student (and now postdoctoral fellow), Paul Kasili, and I completed the development of a nanobiosensor capable of detecting in real time a molecular signaling process in a single human cell following treatment with an anticancer drug.
Q. Of what research are you most proud?
Many people, including coworkers, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students in my research group, have contributed to my research, and they share with me all the credit that we, as a team, have received over the years. Our group has developed several novel technologies—the dosimeter for toxic gas, the PCB spot test, the SERODS optical data storage device, the biochip to detect genetic diseases, the laser-based optical biopsy technique to instantaneously diagnose cancer without surgery, the SERS gene probe for medical diagnostics, the nanobiosensor for single-cell analysis. I really have no favorite because each of these technologies is the product of a lot of effort, intellectual perseverance, and passionate pursuit. All these technologies have a special place in my heart.
Q. Your research involves people at the beginning of their careers—graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. Do you seek them out or do they find you?
Usually, we receive inquiries and applications. I am very proud that our research group has provided an opportunity to many postdocs and students who have not only contributed to our research but also acquired some experience here that is, hopefully, useful to their careers. It is quite satisfying to see, for example, one of my former graduate students become a successful researcher in industry and one of my postdocs become a well-known professor in academia. I'm pleased that some of my students are now becoming established scientists, continuing the scientific legacy. This is quite a powerful and morally satisfying thought.
Q. What do you hope these students take away from the experience of working with you?
I used to tell to my students and postdocs: "A scientific career requires imagination, dedication, and passion. You have to love what you do. If you love your job, then the long hours, the frustration when experiments do not work (which happens quite often), and the tedious effort to apply for research funding are just a small price to pay for an intellectually fulfilling career.
Q. You have also done research projects with distinguished scientists, such as the late Carl Sagan.
Yes, I collaborated some with the late Carl Sagan on a project aimed at searching for extraterrestrial life in the universe. Our group used fluorescence techniques to analyze samples Sagan produced in his labs by simulating the atmospheres of Saturn's moon Titan and of Jupiter (the pre-biotic soup conditions of the early universe). We did detect in those samples polyaromatic hydrocarbons, compounds believed to be the precursors of biological species and indicators of early life in the universe. This work, which for the first time hinted at the possibility of biological life outside our planet, was published well before NASA's announcement of the possibility of life on Mars. That was very interesting, thought-provoking, soul-stimulating research, and it was also quite fun.
Q. What advice would you give researchers who want to commercialize their technology?
Have patience, be persistent, and think long term.
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