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Using ingenuity to get grants, improve technology

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chemist Luke Hanley
Luke Hanley, Researcher of the Year in the natural sciences. “Science is expensive. You want to follow your heart but in order to do expensive science you need external support.”

Photo: Kathryn Marchetti

Now in its second year, the Researcher of the Year Award highlights the accomplishments of UIC scientists. The $3,500 prize goes to researchers in four categories: basic life sciences, clinical sciences, natural sciences and engineering, and social sciences and the humanities.

“I’m trained as a physical chemist, but much of what I do is analytical chemistry,” says Luke Hanley, whose research work often requires creating new instruments to get the job done.

“Part of what we do is to try to push instrumental techniques in new directions. We’re looking to design the next class of instrumentation,” says Hanley, professor of chemistry.

Hanley’s team has several projects going, but he cites two in particular — creating a way to make chemical images of bacterial biofilms, and developing new solar electric cells using lead sulfide-based nanocrystals.

Research on bacterial biofilms is Hanley’s bigger project. He hopes to develop a new class of imaging mass spectrometers to get a better understanding of these nasty forms of microbes.

“They’re highly resistant to antibiotics and other antimicrobial treatments.”

Hanley wants to study the properties of bacteria as they grow in a film to find ways to effectively combat these germs. His technique uses vacuum ultraviolet light sources —tricky to produce in a laboratory.

Hanley is working with other scientists to tackle the problem; he thinks his team is also making progress in developing new biomaterials that inhibit the growth of bacterial biofilm.

His work on solar cells involves a promising class of lead sulfide nanocrystals. Developing low-cost solar energy has been discussed for decades, but only recently has this promise moved closer to reality.

“There are several technologies for new types of solar cells that will really change the field dramatically. Lead sulfide-based nanocrystals are one of them,” Hanley says.

His lab recently got its first solar cell working — a development that really got him excited, given that his original career goal was to become an environmental scientist.

“When I got to university in the early 1980s, it was a difficult time to be an environmental scientist. Many advances in business and science were being pushed back for political reasons.”

Undaunted, Hanley takes a creative approach when he seeks research funding.

“Science is expensive. You want to follow your heart, but in order to do expensive science you need external support,” he says.

“I’ve often taken the strategy of looking at what I do and looking at what the funding agencies — usually federal agencies — are interested in supporting. Then I look for a common interest.”

Hanley joined UIC’s faculty in 1990 after earning his undergraduate degree in chemistry from the University of Toronto and his Ph.D. at SUNY-Stony Brook.

He likens running his research group to operating a small business. People must be paid and support must continue coming in while the scientific results keep flowing out.

To be successful, he adds, you must stay agile when focusing on a particular research topic.

“You have to say to yourself, ‘Where do I fit in? Where can I make a contribution?’ It’s a balance.

“You’re always changing, you’re always looking for opportunities,” he says. “It’s a big world.”


Other Researcher of the Year winners

Joel Brown: game theory, evolution and the ecology of fear

Judith Cook: fighting myths, misperceptions about mental illness

Timothy Shanahan: pushing for literacy through public policy

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