Celebrating light, an interview with Jana Nieder, Ultrafast Bio- and Nanophotonics Group Leader

May 17, 2022

Light plays a central role in our lives. On the most fundamental level, through photosynthesis, light is at the origin of life itself. The study of light has led to promising alternative energy sources, lifesaving medical advances in diagnostics technology and treatments, light-speed internet and many other discoveries that have revolutionised society and shaped our understanding of the universe. These technologies were developed through centuries of fundamental research on the properties of light – starting with Ibn Al-Haytham’s seminal work, Kitab al-Manazir (Book of Optics), published in 1015 and including Einstein’s work at the beginning of the 20th century, which changed the way we think about time and light.

The International Day of Light celebrates the role light plays in science, culture and art, education, and sustainable development, and in fields as diverse as medicine, communications, and energy and is celebrated on 16 May each year, the anniversary of the first successful operation of the laser in 1960 by physicist and engineer, Theodore Maiman. This day is a call to strengthen scientific cooperation and harness its potential to foster peace and sustainable development.

To celebrate this special day we bring a new interview and the possibility of learning more about Jana Nieder, Ultrafast Bio- and Nanophotonics Research Group Leader.

The Ultrafast Bio- and Nanophotonics research group under her leadership develops three synergistic photonics research lines: 1) Innovative Bioimaging Methodology Development for the health sciences, 2) Integrated Photonics Technologies, e.g. for biosensing and neuromorphic, and 3) Quantum Photonics methodologies for metrology, bioimaging and computation.

As Head of the Nanophotonics and Bioimaging Corporate Laboratories at INL, Jana Nieder has the ambition to provide the latest technologies and excellent service and access to the community of internal and external researchers via the established open-access programme.

Jana Nieder is experienced in science dissemination via public presence in round table discussions, TV and the print press, organizer of outreach events, conferences and advanced schools as well as engaged in science & arts initiatives. She has a track record in consortium building, and funding acquisition mainly in photonics-related Innovation and Future Emerging Technology fields with projects from regional, national and European funding agencies.

You have been working at INL since 2014. How was your journey so far and what were the most important projects you’ve worked on?

The most crucial project upon my arrival at INL was the set up of a custom advanced microscope which allows us to observe live cells and other biological materials in their natural environments at record spatial resolution reaching the molecular scale of a nanometer, which helped us understand important biological subcellular architectures that may have an impact in future medical therapies. We could do this due to the interdisciplinarity at INL and our access to state of the art nanofabrication facilities. We could produce functionalized surfaces with thin layers of gold or Graphene that are required for this type of nearfield microscopy.

How did the Ultrafast Bio- and Nanophotonics group start and how does the group correlates with INL’s Research Strategy?

Closely related to this Research and development achievements is the successful creation of the Ultrafast Bio- and Nanophotonics research group, which allows a highly collaborative environment, where international experts and students with different backgrounds (physics, biomedical engineering, bioengineering and chemists) work together to achieve common goals.

Besides the development of microscopy methods that allow us to contribute to the development of precise personalised health tech, and which in parts use quantum photonic metrology and sensing principles that help monitor intracellular composition or temperature and magnetic field evolution, for example, we also use this highly sensitive microscope to study a new generation of spiking nano light sources, which are developed with the aim to build a bioinspired neuromorphic photonic computational platforms. This light-based computing optimized for artificial intelligence applications has the promise of providing low energy computational platforms required for the future of computing.

The Ultrafast Bio- and Nanophotonics group was officially created about two years after I joined INL as a staff researcher and manager of the INL femtosecond laser lab. I established several national and international collaborations, and successfully applied for research funding in photonics research. This was aligned with the opportunity to develop my own team as part of my job description. The first research group members were postdoctoral fellows, summer interns and master’s students, who applied to work with me on competitive projects in photonics, and in addition, I was able to recruit a femtosecond laser specialist at the postdoctoral level to support the R&D of the laser lab.

Nanophotonics has opened up new avenues for a variety of applications in light-harvesting, sensing, luminescence, optical switching, and media transmitting technologies. How do you see the future of Nanophotonics?

Nanophotonics will continue providing non-invasive tools relevant to medical diagnostics and therapies, and provide emerging technologies that are sustainable and energy-efficient. Working with light-based technologies has, is and will remain truly inspiring and has extreme high innovation potential.

Briefly, what excites you about your work and next projects?

The versatility of light-matter interactions demonstrated by the various inspiring light phenomena in nature that we continue admiring as a lifelong experience, it is the hope to control light on the nanoscale, to understand materials and life, to provide light-based technologies with a more sustainable footprint – these are all truly inspiring aspects of our research and require vast networks of collaboration.

We celebrate the “Day of Light” every year and hope to inspire others to work with us together on more sustainable and versatile light-based technologies for a liveable future.