Staff Spotlight: Ben Wilson PhD

Q:  What is your background or specialty and what unique skill set do you bring to IV Lab?

A: I have a PhD in Electrical Engineering from the University of Washington, where I focused on optics, specifically a field called nanophotonics.  Nanophotonics is the study of the interaction of light with particles or systems on a subwavelength scale.

My dissertation was on optical trapping. That’s a technique that uses a laser beam to grab and manipulate objects; like a tractor beam in Star Trek or a zero point energy field manipulator in Half-Life, but it only works on very small objects. We were trying to increase trap performance for assembling small networks of sensitive objects, from nanoparticles, to bacteria, to cancer cells.

Prior to working at IV Lab, I worked for the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) doing research on the vitrification of nuclear waste.  It turns out you can keep radioactive waste stable by vitrifying it, or turning it into glass. PNNL did a lot of fundamental research into this process for the Department of Energy, which was interested in building a waste treatment plant at the Hanford Site in southeastern Washington to vitrify all the radioactive waste stored there in underground tanks. The “vit plant” is now under construction.

Q: What do you do at IV Lab?

A: I work as part of the DFxP (malaria diagnostics) team focusing on optics design and image processing (paper published in Optics Express). I am also the main researcher and project lead for our tuberculosis diagnostics research, the Optical TB Diagnosis project. The goal of this project is to come up with new ways of using microscopes to diagnose active TB infections in places like India and Africa. Our goal is to eliminate the need for a skilled microscope operator by simplifying the sample processing and automating the image acquisition and analysis.

Q: Of the projects you have worked on, what is your favorite one?

A: The project that is the most fun to work on for me is the Optical TB Diagnosis project because it combines many of my interests: microscopy, hyperspectral imaging, image processing, and optical scattering. Plus I’ve always loved bacteria. No joke.

Q: What makes working at IV Lab unique?

A: The Lab is unique due to its combination of available resources and the freedom to explore ideas.  Most research labs in industry have the financial support to do research, but there is less room for creativity in this directed research environment.  Academic research labs allow you to explore ideas and be creative with your research, but there are limited resources. IV Lab is an incredible middle ground of the two, which allows for innovative thinking, problem solving, and the opportunity to explore new possibilities.

Q: Who was an important influence along your path to becoming an optical engineer?

A: That is a tough question. One major influence was my mentor, Pavel Hrma at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.  Despite being just a little crazy, he taught me how to design quality experiments, defend findings, and be innovative in my approach.

Q: Who is your favorite scientist/engineer/inventor?

A: Charles Kao, the “Godfather of Fiber Optics.”

Kao is a Chinese-born electrical engineer and physicist who pioneered the development and use of fiber optics in telecommunications, enabling the broadband world we live in today. Kao demonstrated that the high loss of existing fiber optics arose from impurities in the glass, rather than from an underlying problem with the technology itself. Kao was awarded half of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics for “groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication”.

Q: What are you reading right now?

A: I am currently reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1866 novel Crime and Punishment.  I have a lot of time to read during my commute, so recently I began plowing through classical literature. I have also been reading about bacterial self-assembly, a fascinating topic.

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