Gao receives NSF CAREER Award to investigate high-speed fluorescent lifetime imaging microscopy


Daniel Dexter, ECE ILLINOIS

Assistant Professor Liang Gao is developing groundbreaking technology, which will ultimately lead to a new generation of high-speed fluorescence lifetime imagers.

Liang Gao
Liang Gao

Gao received the NSF CAREER award, which includes over $500,000 in grant funding, for his proposal on Compressed Fluorescence Lifetime Imaging Microscopy. His research could revolutionize the microscopy field because it will allow biologists to quantitatively image dynamic fluorescence events at an unprecedented speed.

Gao will apply this new technology to image action potentials in neuron cells. This has been a problem for researchers because current lifetime imaging technology has not been able to capture the rapid firing of neuron cells, which typically occurs within a few milliseconds.

“For conventional fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopes, they are either using point-scanning or line-scanning to capture the fluorescent lifetime,” Gao said. “Normally, this is a very slow process. It takes a few seconds to capture a lifetime image. For our approach, it is based on compressed sensing. So we make the data acquisition more efficient, which will allow us to image lifetimes at a very fast speed – up to one thousand frames per second.”

Gao’s fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy technology is based on his previous research on compressed ultrafast photography (CUP), the world’s fastest camera which can capture dynamic scenes at 100 billion frames per second. His technology makes it possible, for the first time, for people to capture photons in the fly.

Gao said it was an honor for him to receive the NSF CAREER Award, which is the organization’s most prestigious award for young faculty members who have displayed extraordinary potential to serve as academic leaders in their field. The grant allows Gao to pursue this exciting opportunity to “push the boundaries of ultra-fast imaging.”

Gao joined the ECE ILLINOIS faculty in summer 2016, and leads the Intelligent Optics Laboratory (iOptics). He credited the department's environment as a significant contributor to his success as a young faculty member.

“Everyone in the department has been very supportive of the work I am doing here,” Gao said. The university has world-class labs and shared facilities on campus that were one of the most important contributors to my proposal.”