How Andrea Armani Invented A New Set Of Scientific Tools

Armani developed sensors that are speeding scientific discovery across many fields.

Andrea Armani

Joel Kimmel

Each year, Popular Science_ seeks out the brightest young scientists and engineers and names them the Brilliant Ten. Like the 110 honorees before them, the members of this year's class are dramatically reshaping their fields--and the future. Some are tackling pragmatic questions, like how to secure the Internet, while others are attacking more abstract ones, like determining the weather on distant exoplanets. The common thread between them is brilliance, of course, but also impact. If the Brilliant Ten are the faces of things to come, the world will be a safer, smarter, and brighter place.--The Editors_

Andrea Armani

University of Southern California

Achievement

Inventing a new set of scientific tools

Some scientists use instruments to reinvent our understanding of the world. Andrea Armani, a chemical engineer at the University of Southern California, prefers to reinvent the instruments themselves. Armani develops sensors that are speeding scientific discovery across many fields. They may also serve as detectors for biological weapons, waterborne pathogens, or radioactivity.

Armani has built what's called a resonant cavity sensor to detect single molecules quickly and accurately. "It works like an optical tuning fork," she says. Light of a single wavelength circles within the sensor's microscopic silica ring, just as one note vibrates from the tines of a tuning fork. When a biomolecule attaches to the sensor's surface, it changes the wavelength. Armani says one might use the device to detect traces of disease that other techniques miss. Recently, she's also started experiments to better understand how drugs bind to their targets.

Armani's devices outstrip the capabilities of standard optics. Some can withstand temperature swings without losing precision; others can pick up proteins in dry air. She wants them to work in real-world conditions and approaches the task with impressive efficiency. "Industrial R&D, if done right, should be very results focused, aware of the tyranny of time," says Robert Carnes, former R&D director for the research firm Battelle. "She can out-industry industry."

Click here to see more from our annual celebration of young researchers whose innovations will change the world. This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of Popular Science.