Growing up in one of China’s northernmost cities, Harbin, the son of an airplane mechanic, Meng Cui first became intrigued by physics while playing with toys his father engineered for him. “Physics can explain all of the phenomena you see in your lifelike why you have to lean into a turn when you ride your bike,” he says.
Cui's interest in optics sprang from his senior year honors thesis at Nankai University in Tianjin when he worked in a laboratory that was using laser spectroscopy to investigate tiny carbon nanotubes. “That showed me how lasers can reveal the properties of materials.”
He pursued his interest, earning his Ph.D. in optical physics at University of Michigan, a powerhouse in ultrafast optics with some of the most advanced table top lasers available. There, his work focused on coherent Raman microscopy, a type of imaging that allows the observer to identify a molecule based on its light-scattering properties alone. In this form of spectroscopy, light from a laser interacts with the molecular vibrations of whatever material is being imaged. These interactions shift the energy of the laser photons, which gives a readout of the material's properties. From his studies, Cui learned that if the coherent Raman scattering technique could be made more powerful, it would bring a huge advantage to studying biological molecules. Scientists would no longer need to use any kind of fluorescent label or heavy metal tag, which can change a molecule’s behavior.
As a postdoc at the California Institute of Technology, Cui tackled another problem of biological imaging—using optical microscopy to observe biological samples that are thicker than a simple layer of cells. “If you try to look at 1-millimeter thick tissues, you get the problem of light scattering: the insides of cells are filled with all kind of components that change the beam direction, and the speed of light is different in different types of tissues. You’ll get random speckles and you will not be able to resolve any structures,” explains Cui.
In continuing that line of research and trying to boost the power of coherent Raman imaging for biological uses, Cui has devoted his laboratory group to providing an optical phase conjugation microscope that would allow biologists to achieve imaging a 1-mm thick slice of tissue. The best technology today, two-photon microscopy, only achieves a distance of about half that, or 500 microns.
Ultimately, he would like to develop an imaging technology that would not only allow scientists to peer deeper into biological tissues below the surface of the skin to give sharp, crisp images, but to also do so with coherent Raman imaging that would enable collecting molecular information. That, he says, could revolutionize medical imaging. Currently, a doctor might find a tumor with an ultrasound or an x-ray, but a biopsy surgery is needed to diagnose whether it is cancerous or benign. With a new Raman-based technology, doctors could diagnose a tumor by comparing the Raman spectrum collected through deep tissues to that of normal tissues, a potentially fast and noninvasive procedure.
“I feel that if I can make any breakthrough in this field, it will have the highest impact on the biomedical imaging world,” says Cui. And importantly, his research is a “very good fit for neuroscience” where researchers would like to peer into the operating brains of rodents at a greater depth. Cui feels working side by side with researchers who might potentially use his techniques will help him quickly develop and customize the most useful imaging tools.
When thoughts begin scattering in his own head, Cui hits the basketball court to shoot hoops to help him focus. He was glad to see courts on the Janelia campus: “Maybe I’ll start a league.”
Dr. Cui is recruiting for the following positions: postdoc or research scientist in biomedical imaging technology. The position will support the investigation and development of novel imaging technologies that enable high-resolution molecular imaging (fluorescence, Raman, nonlinear light-matter interaction) in light-scattering media (such as deep tissues). The position requires a Ph.D. in physics, chemistry, optical engineering, or other closely related fields. Experimental skills in optical imaging, laser spectroscopy, and optoelectronics are required. Preference will be given to candidates with research backgrounds in ultrasound-modulated optical tomography.