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Alumni Spotlight: Jing Zhao

Jing Zhao PhotoJing Zhao, a 2008 graduate student from the Schatz and Van Duyne Groups, is an Associate Professor at the University of Connecticut. The Zhao lab focuses on optical spectroscopies of semiconductor and metallic nanoparticles and analytes in close proximity to the nanoparticles

Your time at Northwestern spanned 2003-2008. In what ways did your time in the Department shape you and inspire your work today? 

When I entered NU, I had very little formal training in conducting scientific research. My time in the department allowed me to learn every aspect of scientific research, including literature review, formulating the right questions, designing experiments, writing scientific papers, and giving presentations. And mostly importantly, the experience helped me develop strong critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

I was lucky to be jointly advised two advisors who provided me with comprehensive training in both experimental and computational chemistry, even though my current research is exclusively experimental. This unique expertise gave me a more profound understanding of computational chemistry than most of my fellow experimentalists, that I still benefit from today.

My graduate research on the interaction between localized surface plasmon resonance and molecular resonance built my core expertise in optical spectroscopy of nanomaterials, which lays the foundation of my research group. My perspective on mentoring students was greatly influenced by the mentoring style of my advisors. They consistently provided support while giving students ample freedom to explore. I am grateful for the mentoring, guidance and support from my advisors, graduate committee members, lab mates, and fellow students in the department. Without these, I would not be successful in my current role as a chemistry professor.

How would you explain your work to non-scientists? What drew you to this line of research? 

My current work centers on quantum dots, which are tiny semiconductor particles with a size of several to tens of nanometers. When light shines on these tiny particles, they give off a range of very bright colors, like the rainbow. And the color they emit depends on their size. We study the physical process happening these tiny particles induced by light, so we could regulate their emitting properties. We also modify the surface of these particles so they could be utilized to label specific targets in the brain tissues.

My interest in this research comes from my postdoc experience, where I studied the optical properties of single quantum dots. I was fascinated by their unique emitting properties. Using a specialized optical microscope, I saw the emission of individual particles turn “on” and “off” with the naked eye, like the stars twinkling in the night sky. Eager to understand the cause of this phenomenon, we are currently developing statistical methods to analyze such behavior in an objective manner.

What are some of the potential applications of the research that you do? 

The materials we develop have diverse applications. Some types of quantum dots have already had commercial use as components in LED displays. They could also function as biological imaging probes, and act as photocatalysts for a wide range of reactions. 

While at NU, you conducted research in George Schatz and Richard Van Duyne (deceased) groups. What was the most memorable part of that experience? 

One of the most memorable moments with Prof. Schatz occurred shortly after I joined his group when he dedicated one-on-one time with me to teach me the fundamentals of computational chemistry, to work through the derivations of Maxwell and Schrödinger equations, and so on. This precious experience solidified my grasp of theoretical chemistry. One of the most cherished times in the Van Duyne group was the Friday afternoon beer hours when the group hung out together and tasted different kinds of beers. I even came close to winning the “most popular beer” contest, although I had no knowledge of beers! These gatherings allowed me to learn the American culture and also develop lifelong friends.

Do you have any advice for current students in the Department?

Set clear career goals, build strong relationships with your advisors and fellow students, and enjoy life!

 Which hobby or activity do you pursue outside of Chemistry? 

 Reading, swimming, strength training, and traveling