Andrea Armani is an assistant professor in the Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, but that title doesn’t reveal her wide interests and the scope of her work. Her research group has more than twenty students—undergraduates, graduates and postdoctoral students—and conducts cutting-edge research in materials, optics, photonics and biodetection, spanning the fields of physics, chemistry and biology.
PopSci recognized Armani’s groundbreaking work by including her in this year’s “Brilliant 10,” a selection of the brightest young researchers in the country.
Assistant Professor Andrea Armani
The Armani lab has many irons in the fire, but a few of the projects underway involve optical computing, biodetection and a wearable sensor that detects ultra violet light exposure.
Optical computing represents an entirely new type of computer system. The ones we rely on today are based on electrons moving through transistors that are either on or off, giving us the 0-1 binary system that computers use to process and store information.
Optical computers will use photons instead of electrons. Photons are waves of light, and their use in computing presents advantages as well as challenges. Photons, unlike electrons, do not generate heat when used in computing. Overheating is a common problem with current computing machinery. Our personal computers require fans and other ways for heat to escape, and large server rooms used to run the Internet’s biggest websites use enormous amount of energy to keep cool.
To make optical computing a reality, Armani is working on the building blocks of the system: building wave guides, splitters, couplers and lasers that will make the computer work and create switches that will form the foundation of a computing system.
Part of the research involves creating new materials to coat the devices the laser will pass through to manipulate the light in the desired ways, causing it to turn this way or that way at certain times and in predictable proportions. To transition from individual components to the next level of complexity, she is teaming up with Prof. Alan Willner and the Information Sciences Institute.
Armani also does work in biodetection. This involves passing lasers through materials that can then sense when as little as a single molecule such as a protein touches the device. Using this technology, researchers can study how molecules like proteins, viruses and DNA behave. One of the advantages of using lasers to do this work is that you can test how molecules behave at different levels of acidity, temperature and other external parameters. Other methods for this type of biodetection rely on electric currents, which can be affected by conditions like the acidity of the solution, so they aren’t effective at testing in those circumstances.
Left: An electron microscopy image of the optical sensor used for biodetection. It is fabrication in large arrays on a silicon wafer. Right: A rendering of the UV sensor device. Images courtesy of the Armani Research Lab
The Armani group is also developing a UV sensor that can monitor you sun exposure throughout the day. The applications of this device span many areas of public health. Those prone to skin cancer can find out their specific level of exposure from day to day, as opposed to a rough estimate. Researchers can also use it to monitor the total UV exposure in children, which indirectly correlates to physical activity, since children running and playing in sunny climates get more UV exposure than those that are sitting under a tree.
Armani explains how her interest in science and engineering started, and how she came to have such a broad range of research.
“As a child, I wanted to be an astronaut, but I wear glasses, so that didn’t happen. When I began taking science classes in high school, I really liked biology first, and then I took chemistry, and I really liked chemistry, and then I took physics, and I really liked physics.”
Where most people feel pressure to choose a specific focus, Armani let herself explore all these areas. As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, she concentrated in physics, but also took all the required courses for a degree in chemistry. She got her PhD in applied physics at Caltech and picked up a master’s in biology. Then her postdoctoral work focused on biology and chemical engineering.
“When I was in ninth grade, my parents told me that I had to choose a focus, and now I tell them, ‘See? I was right; I didn’t have to choose. Why choose when you can do it all?’”