This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Prasad urges chemists to branch out

Chemists have role to play in emerging fields of nanophotonics, biophotonics

Published: May 5, 2005

Contributing Editor

Chemists have an important role to play in the emerging fields of nanophotonics and biophotonics, and the learning curve to enter them is not as high as is generally believed, according to Paras N. Prasad, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Chemistry, College of Arts and Sciences.

That was the message Prasad sought to communicate during a symposium, "Novel Directions in Photonics: Nanophotonics and Biophotonics," held during the recent American Chemical Society (ACS) national meeting in San Diego.

Prasad organized the six-session symposium with George Schatz, Morrison Professor of Chemistry at Northwestern University.

Nanophotonics is the science behind light and matter interacting on the nanoscale, while biophotonics is the science behind the ways that light and biological matter interact.

Both have mistakenly been viewed, Prasad says, as falling more within the purview of physicists than chemists.

"Since the beginnings of both nanophotonics and biophotonics, chemists have been making major contributions to these fields," says Prasad, "but their contributions often go unnoticed.

"We need to recognize how much chemists have done in these fields already and to encourage younger chemists to continue that work," he says.

Proving his point, the plenary talks in the symposium were delivered by chemists who are among the most prolific names in photonics and nanotechnology research, including George M. Whitesides, Woodford L. and Ann A. Flowers University Professor at Harvard University; Jean M.J. Fréchet, Henry Rapoport Chair of Organic Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley; and Virgil Percec, P. Roy Vagelos Chair and Professor of Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania.

"I think chemists may get intimidated because they feel they have to learn a lot of physics to start working in nanophotonics or a lot of biology to start working in biophotonics," says Prasad.

That's a misconception, he continues.

Chemists can start with minimal understanding of these fields; what is critical is that they begin to forge key interdisciplinary relationships with researchers in other, related fields.

"Just eight years ago, I knew very little about biology," Prasad recalls.

By initiating research relationships with scientists in other departments, he began to learn how his background in chemistry could be instrumental in solving some of the important problems in biophotonics.

In 2003, he authored the field's first comprehensive book on the field, "Introduction to Biophotonics," and a year later he published "Nanophotonics," both published by John Wiley & Sons.

As executive director of UB's Institute for Lasers, Photonics and Biophotonics, established in 1999, Prasad conducts interdisciplinary research that has won him international recognition and resulted in several patented inventions involving quantum dots and novel biophotonic materials with applications ranging from photodynamic cancer therapy to bioimaging to new dimensions in drug therapy made possible by nanomedicine.

Most recently, he has developed nanoparticles that function as carriers for diagnostic-imaging agents that enhance MRI scans, X-rays and other diagnostic-imaging techniques, and gene-therapy vectors that carry none of the immunogenic problems of viral vectors.

"There are huge opportunities for chemists in these areas," says Prasad, who is invited frequently to conduct tutorials introducing both nanophotonics and biophotonics to chemists and chemical engineers.

The ACS symposium featured approximately 40 chemists working on a broad range of nanophotonics and biophotonics research projects, including photonic crystals, plasmonics, nanophotonics and near-field interactions, bioimaging, biosensing and photodynamic therapy.