The first impression a visitor to Dr. Erik Sánchez’s nano-development lab may have is that here is a place buzzing with science and innovation. Clusters of computers hum, warming the room and filling it with a scent distinctly electronic as they make the calculations that control experiments and analyze a massive amount of data. A phalanx of optical microscopes, many uniquely customized, stand arrayed across a workbench. In the adjacent room amongst the myriad shelves and bins containing the raw materials of some of the most advanced microscopes in the world rests the skeleton of a new microscope coming into being. These are the rooms where a small team of talented and passionate scientists led by Dr. Sánchez are redrawing the boundaries of fluorescence and Raman spectroscopy/microscopy.
“What we like to do in the lab,” Dr. Sánchez said, “is take the concept of the optical microscope and take it a step further—improve its resolution.”
The Sánchez nano-development lab focuses on the development and implementation of nano-scale imaging techniques. Their research considers the optical interaction of light and nanometric objects in order to generate enhanced fields for fluorescence and Ramen imaging and to determine new applications for Focused Ion/Electron Beam systems toward the study of biological systems using near-field and far-field microscopes. The lab is innovating new ways to see at the nanoscale and building the tools to do it with traded, recycled, and repurposed parts, and more than a little ingenuity, daring, creativity, and cunning.
Over the years the lab has received grants and donations from the National Science Foundation, the Semiconductor Research Corporation, NRI, ONAMI, and many other organizations that have led to specific studies and the purchase of some of the lab’s equipment. The lion’s share of the mass of equipment and materials in the lab, however, has been acquired personally by Dr. Sánchez, thanks, in part, to his reputation and connections in the field. Working and developing relationships with companies and organizations outside the university has provided Dr. Sánchez the capability to, at times and on certain projects, work beyond the constraints imposed by more conventional funding methods.
The unique circumstances under which the nano-development lab operates in combination with the talented teams Dr. Sánchez has assembled have led to some truly remarkable innovations in microscopy/spectroscopy including improving the resolution of neutral atom microscopy to levels never before reached, developing a multifunctional shear force microscope for biological applications, and creating a low-cost non-linear fluorescence near-field/far-field microscope. The lab also fabricates thin film for substrate modification, liquid metal ion source generation, or other nanoscale near-field processes. The research conducted at the lab has also led to over a dozen peer-reviewed papers and many more talks and presentations.
One component of the nano-development lab not to be overlooked is Dr. Sánchez’s dedication to education. Along with fellow physics professor, Dr. Jun Jiao, Dr. Sánchez mentors undergraduate students interested in the sciences in the NSF-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates program. On occasion, Dr. Sánchez also works with younger students, introducing them to physics and the strange and beautiful world of the nanoscale. Whether in the classroom or the lab, Dr. Sánchez encourages creativity, hard work, and innovation.
“Here in the lab,” Dr. Sánchez said, “we do complex experiments that are very difficult. I have a unique group working here with me: some are good with electronics, some are good at building things, some are skilled in numerical modeling. Everyone has a specific strength and I try to help them with some of their weaknesses by giving them the guidance they need. I like to see people realize their potential and I like to help people develop new and useful things. I want to make a difference in the learning process of how students do research; in many cases this leads to the building of microscopes that image much better.”
Stepping into the Sánchez nano-development lab one gets the sense that they’re in a cyclone. To the uninitiated it is both wonderful and chaotic. Unlike the Center for Electron Microscopy and Nanofabrication, the nano-development lab is a place where the development of the microscope take place leading to discoveries being made at both the nano and the macro scale, a place where scientists can pursue creative solutions to imaging issues in a hands-on way, a place where if you can envision a better device or method and you have the wherewithal, creativity, and ingenuity to do it, chances are Dr. Sánchez will give you the encouragement and support to innovate and bring your idea into being.