Cunningham: Donald Biggar Willett Professor in Engineering

Professorship: Donald Biggar Willett Professor
in Engineering

Donald Biggar Willett (1897-1981) attended Illinois from 1916 to 1922, but left the university just a few hours short of earning a bachelor's degree in civil engineering. During the 1930s, Willett moved to Los Angeles and opened a tax accounting business. He died in 1981 at age 83. His wife, Elizabeth Marie Henning Willett, was an avid investor who accumulated a fortune. She knew that her husband admired the U of I College of Engineering for its thriftiness and honesty, so in her will she left a gift to the college for research in memory of her husband. Mrs. Willett died in 1993 at age 91. The purpose of the Willett Professorships is to increase the distinction of the College and its departments by recognizing and stimulating intellectual leadership and outstanding research.

Faculty: Brian T. Cunningham

Brian Cunningham
Brian T. Cunningham

Brian T. Cunningham is a professor in the departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Bioengineering at Illinois. Research in his Nano Sensors Group is focused on the application of sub-wavelength optical phenomena and fabrication methods to the development of novel devices and instrumentation for the life sciences. By constructing nanostructure surfaces — such as photonic crystals that can capture light from an LED, a laser, or a light bulb, and to concentrate its energy on the surface — researchers can attach biomolecules like antibodies or proteins, and selectively look for, and grab, something specific out of a test sample. One recent breakthrough by the group is the first biosensing laser, with a number of applications for their research, including HIV viral load and early-stage cancer detection.

Cunningham is the founder of Exalt Diagnostics, a company established in 2012 to commercialize Photonic Crystal Enhanced Fluorescence technology for applications in early disease diagnostics, allergy characterization, and life science research. Exalt Diagnostics has also licensed Cunningham’s patents in the field of mobile device diagnostics for point-of-care, point-of-use, manufacturing quality control, food safety, and environmental monitoring applications. Cunningham is the author of 78 issued U.S. patents, and is considered as one of the world’s leading authorities in the field of biosensors.