Senior Associate Dean Kimani Toussaint Presents at NSF Workshop

Kimani Toussaint

Through four half-day sessions in March, the National Science Foundation convened leaders in electronic materials, devices, and systems in a virtual workshop to discuss emerging opportunities in semiconductors and related materials and their integration within electronic and photonic systems. The workshop aimed to develop a vision for directed research in future innovations in semiconductors and related materials, both to promote economic growth and continued U.S. leadership in this critical sector. Brown professor Kimani Toussaint served as a panelist in session four, Advancing Organic/Biodevices - Sensing, Stimulation and Communication, focusing on the intersection of semiconductor devices and biological sensors and control. 

The title of the workshop doesn't really reflect the breadth of what was discussed. There were discussions on two-dimensional materials like graphene, and the types of interesting device properties that can be engineered from simply stacking sheets and even having a small angle between the layers. There were talks on flexible and bio-compatible electronics that could noninvasively extract biometric data without bulky wires. There was discussion on how the lessons that researchers are learning about the brain by using light to probe and stimulate could  inform a new type of engineering technology inspired by the physics of brain interconnections.

There were a myriad of topics all around the idea of what tomorrow will bring in terms of new application devices, new fundamental breakthroughs, and how that can impact our individual research.

If you look at the list of speakers, these were some of the leaders of their fields. Several of them belong to the National Academies (Science, Engineering, and Medicine). For me, it was a humbling experience. It was great that Brown University was represented because there were premier engineering and science institutions there. So for Brown to have a platform to speak, where there were only a few speakers, is a testament to the strength and growing reputation of our School of Engineering. I’m pleased that the workshop organizers thought that I had some interesting ideas to share with them, and it was truly a privilege to present.

The area of interest to me is optical imaging. I discussed how microscopy in particular can be thought of as a type of sensor. While we don't normally think of it that way, it could be considered a sensor that gives you spatially resolved, visual information of a particular type. There are an assortment of microscope modalities, with each providing or sensing different information. I proposed that in the future, many, if not all, of the various modalities could be integrated into a single platform which a user could readily access with a switch of a button. This type of convergence microscopy could be the next evolutionary step to multi-modal microscopy or sensing.  An end-user would therefore be able to sense different types of data in situ  (remains situated in original place) from the same specimen.  

I also discussed what convergence microscopy could look like more than 10 years from now by looking at how the basic microscope has evolved over the last several centuries. If you were to look at the history of microscopes as far back as the 1600s to now, the frame or shape has noticeably changed roughly every hundred years. And for the last several decades, the microscope frame really hasn’t changed that much. So, I think we're about due for a new form of the microscope. Because of all the advances in materials and technology, we may get to a point where we can actually wear the microscope, which will essentially be an assortment of sensors. So we can begin to think about a conformal convergence microscope, where the instrument conforms to the body and brings a convergence of modalities. This could allow an individual at home to do something like simultaneously visualize their lungs and their constituent cells. It also would provide direct access to the nano-, micro-world at your fingertips, changing how we interact with the data, and how we perceive information about ourselves.  

The conference organizers will be compiling a report to submit to the NSF, who is interested in determining the next big area to invest in over the next 10 years. Hopefully soon we will see the results of this report. It is exciting to think that these types of conferences could  help drive where science and engineering research can go next.