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Quantum Jumps Could Help Image Cancer Cells

An image from an animation showing the fluorescence process when the quantum dot is in the so-called "on" state. (Image credit: Ovidiu Toader, Vancouver BA, Canada)

This ScienceLives article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

New research by Boldizsár Jankó, a professor of theoretical physics at The University of Notre Dame, and his colleagues offers an important breakthrough in understanding an enduring mystery in physics.

More than a century ago, at the dawn of modern quantum mechanics, the Noble Prize-winning physicist Neils Bohr predicted “quantum jumps.” Since the early 1990s, researchers have been able to view such jumps as interruptions of the continuous emissions from single molecules, a phenomenon informally called “blinking”. However, while some blinking can be directly ascribed to Bohr’s original quantum jumps, many observations do not follow predictions.

Now, with NSF support, Jankó and his colleagues have developed a model for the blinking phenomena that confirms what earlier studies had revealed in experiments. If the blinking process can be controlled, quantum dots could provide better, more stable imaging of cancer cells (a technique already in use); provide researchers with real-time images of a viral infection, such as HIV, within a cell; lead to the development of a new generation of brighter display screens for computers, cell phones and other electronic applications; and even improve lighting fixtures for homes and offices. To learn more, visit Jankó’s website Blinking Stars on the Nanoscale to see videos and animations, and read the press release “New paper offers breakthrough on blinking molecules phenomena”. Below, Jankó answers the ScienceLives 10 Questions.

Name: Boldizsar Janko

Age: 43 Institution: University of Notre Dame & Argonne National Laboratory Field of Study: Theoretical Condensed Matter Physics

What inspired you to choose this field of study?

I found superconductivity and vortex matter mysterious and beautiful.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received?

“When you no longer care about a factor of 2, you should retire.”

What was your first scientific experiment as a child?

Throwing a used tire off a balcony from the fifth floor.

What is your favorite thing about being a researcher?

I have the unique chance to reveal, understand and explain something no one else ever has before.

What is the most important characteristic a researcher must demonstrate in order to be an effective researcher?

In my field, unique mathematical talent has to be combined with an outstanding ability to understand, interpret experimental data and to interact effectively with experimentalists.

What are the societal benefits of your research? Quantum dots are used as biomarkers in cancer research, virology and cell biology.

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher?

My postdoc advisors and collaborators, Nobel Laureates Alex Abrikosov, Rudy Marcus, Tony Leggett, and my Ph.D. advisor Vinay Ambegokar.

What about your field or being a researcher do you think would surprise people the most? That we are able to see SINGLE molecules blink like stars on a clear night sky AND able to explain the phenomenon.

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be?


What music do you play most often in your lab or car?

Authentic Roma (gypsy) music.

Editor's Note: This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the ScienceLives archive.