In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Xinchao Lu, associate professor at the Institute of Microelectronics, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), China. Lu is devoted to applying optical technology to solving imminent man-made environmental threats and has developed a rapid, label-free, in-situ method that can efficiently detect nano-pollutants. Through collaborations with virology and water-environmental–control professionals, she is promoting the in-situ microbe-detection method for use in environmental-monitoring applications.
What first interested you in pursuing science?
When I was six years old, I went to a park with my brothers and sisters. During lunchtime, a customer lost a piece of ham and complained to the food vendor for their carelessness. I tried to identify the root cause and found that the piece of ham had slipped from the burger that the customer had purchased. This incident made me realize that searching for the facts underneath the surface is crucial and it stirred up my own interest in doing so. Growing up, I found that science is also a journey to search for the facts under the surface, and I enjoyed the process of discovering the truth from many hidden and detailed clues.
What aspect of your current work do you find the most interesting or exciting?
My current research focuses on the nanoscopy with fast and label-free detection of nano-objects, including viruses and nanoparticles. This area of study is crucial to assure human health and environmental safety, but it is also difficult due to the need for high sensitivity and fast speed, which are not easy to combine. I have implemented a fast, label-free detection method for single 39-nm polystyrene nanoparticles, T4 phage virus and E. Coli in water. Observing a tiny virus that can’t be seen even by a microscope is very interesting and exciting.
What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals?
A good advisor is a shortcut for successful networking. During my Ph.D. and postdoctoral research, I met several good advisors that gave me a lot of recommendations on how to conduct my research, and who also helped me to broaden my network, which was beneficial to my career later on. If you are not fortunate to have a good advisor like me, you can create opportunities to build your own networks. For instance, you could email colleagues to discuss the problems in their papers, share your research achievements and give talks with your colleagues at conferences. In addition to that, if you need resources that you are not familiar with, you may ask your colleagues for assistance instead of doing it alone.
What professional resources do you rely on to stay active and engaged with your field?
Learning about other researchers’ work and my own work are both important for staying active and engaged in my field. Attending conferences is a good way to communicate with these colleagues, follow the up-to-date research and gain some good ideas. Reading journal papers is also a good way to keep up with cutting-edging research. Although I mentor many graduate students, I still like to do some hands-on experiments on my own to find interesting things and discover the unknown, which allows me to keep up with the trends and development in my research area.
What’s the best career decision you’ve ever made, and why?
Quitting my job in China at 29 years old and going to study in the U.S. was the best career decision I have ever made in my life. After I received my masters degree in China, I worked in an institute for three years and found the job was tedious and boring. To change my personal situation, I went to Oklahoma State University to pursue my Ph.D., which is where I met my advisor, Weili Zhang. He opened a door for me to do academic research, which paved the way to start my own research career and find the field that interested me.
Describe a major turning point in your career. Was there a specific action/accomplishment that got you there?
My decision to change my research area from terahertz devices to nanoscopy was a major turning point in my career. Although I have a solid foundation of research in the terahertz area, I think nano-imaging is more attractive. After changing to this new area, I started to build the experimental setup, find suitable simulation tools and explore the data-processing method from the very beginning until I saw the first single nanoparticles—it was truly an exciting moment for me! Since then, I have been collaborating with experts in virology and water environmental control to promote the methodology of environmental monitoring and surveillance in China.
What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?
Keep steadfastly working toward your goals. Doing scientific research is seeking the truth, and the majority of the trials may fail, but if you are persistent, you will approach the truth and eventually find it. Additionally, having a baby is a big challenge for many young women scientists; most of them have to give up their research to spend more time with their family. My advice is please don’t give up—your rhythm may be slow, but if you hold onto it, you will make it!
How important are leadership roles in career development, and how do you hone your leadership skills?
To be a leader means to bear more responsibilities. For example, I have been responsible for training a novice to grow into an expert. I have also been responsible for developing the research field by translating research into applications.
I received my leadership skills from the Bible. From Jesus, I learned how to take responsibility and provide guidance. Patience and tolerance are equally important, and discipline based on love is also a necessity.
At this point in your career, what are you most looking forward to?
After investigating the mechanism of nanoscopy in depth, I’m looking forward to promoting the technology into various applications, such as biological sciences, environmental monitoring and surveillance, and nanotechnologies, which will benefit health and scientific development.
If you weren’t in the sciences, what would be your dream career?
Cultural relic restoration would be my dream career if I weren’t in the sciences. Historical relics are the cultural assets of human beings; however, they have been experiencing irreversible degradation. Restoring relics is a crucial step for us to understand human history. I’m also interested in drawing, which is a skill that could be used in the restoration process. This role needs patience and carefulness—qualities that are in line with my personality.