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What will 2008 bring?
Pete Wilton | 11 Feb 08
In our strand that asks researchers for their predictions for science we ask chemist Claire Vallance for her thoughts on 2008:
OxSciBlog: What are you working on right now?
Claire Vallance: I'm working on a few different projects at the moment. One of the things we're trying to do is to trap laser light inside optical fibres and use it to probe molecules near the fibre surface. We're looking at a variety of ways to do this. In one method, we inject a pulse of light into a loop of optical fibre and make a measurement each time it completes a circuit to see how much of the original pulse is left. A small amount of light is lost on each revolution - due to scattering and absorption within the fibre - leading to a decay of the light intensity with time, which we record. The next step is to modify a short section of the fibre loop so that nearby molecules can 'see' the light inside the loop and interact with it. The interaction allows some of the trapped light to leak out from the loop, leading to a more rapid decay of the circulating light pulse and alerting us to the presence of the molecules at the fibre surface. Once we have perfected the technique, it should provide an extremely sensitive method for probing chemical species present at low concentrations in solution, so may find applications in areas such as environmental monitoring or bio-sensing.
OSB: What do you think will be the most important development in your research area in 2008?
CV: Very recently, Kerry Vahala's research group at CalTech have shown that using a technique related to ours it is possible to make measurements on single molecules. Detecting single biomolecules, such as proteins, almost always involves attaching a small fluorescent label to the molecule of interest and using the fluorescence as a 'beacon' to track the molecular movements. Vahala's experiment is revolutionary since it is one of the first examples in which unlabelled single molecules have been detected directly, and it has almost certainly opened the way to a wide range of exciting studies on the structure and function of proteins and other biological molecules.
Perhaps the most exciting development for me personally will be starting a brand new project that has recently been funded by the newly-formed European Research Council. I will be going back to my roots in gas-phase physical chemistry and developing a next-generation mass spectrometer with imaging capabilities. We plan to use the new instrument for applications ranging from surface imaging to probing the physics involved in breaking a chemical bond and investigating the structures of peptides and proteins.
Claire Vallance heads a research group in Oxford's Physical & Theoretical Chemistry Laboratory.