‘I had a slightly optimistic view of what working as a scientist truly means’

17 Apr 2019

Associate professor Dominic Zerulla of the UCD School of Physics. Image: UCD

Dominic Zerulla of the UCD School of Physics believes his research team’s work might surpass that which won a Nobel Prize in 2014.

After completing his studies in physics at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf (HHUD), Dominic Zerulla went on to graduate with a PhD in physical chemistry from the University of Leipzig and the synchrotron radiation facility in Berlin known as BESSY.

Following a return to HHUD, he went on to have two visiting professorship roles at Astrakhan State University in Russia and at UC Berkeley in the US. He joined University College Dublin (UCD) in 2004 where he is now an associate professor in the university’s School of Physics.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I was reading science fiction novels as a young boy and that triggered my dreams of working as a scientist. Of course, I had a slightly too-optimistic view regarding what working as a scientist truly means, especially on a daily basis, and usually there is no dramatic music in the background.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

I am quite excited about our most recent work. We have found an entirely new way of imaging far beyond the diffraction limit of light. Our technology might be capable of surpassing the performance of the methods which – as recently as 2014 – were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Our novel method enables parallel acquisition of the image information and is orders of magnitude faster than the currently established techniques. This will enable fast video-rate imaging of biological mechanisms, accelerating an in-depth understanding of biomedically relevant mechanisms, and has the capability to support diagnostics and therapy.

A second advantage is that our method’s spatial resolution is tied to the smallest structure sizes we can produce lithographically today. With the advent of high-resolution nanotechnology, which is heavily researched and supported by major global companies, the attainable resolution of our imaging method will further improve in the future.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

We believe that it will play a major role in understanding nature and will permit unravelling of currently invisible processes. This will have a positive effect across all sciences but especially in fields which would benefit from spatial resolutions lower than 25 nanometres. This would include cancer research and Alzheimer’s research, but also more general fields such as genetics, proteomics or materials science.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

In 2018 I founded a UCD spin-out company, Pearlabs Technologies – with the support of the NovaUCD technology transfer and enterprise development teams – which aims to commercialise our method for super-resolution microscopy (nanoscopy).

We are currently in discussion with global market leaders and are working on a route to market which permits to develop the technology further and to provide global researchers with better imaging tools in the future.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

Working as an academic in a university typically means that one has to straddle three work components: teaching, administration and research. It is a challenge to focus on the research part, which is the creative and most satisfying part, in my opinion.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

That’s difficult to say. For example, I am unsure what researchers in the biomedical area know about the physical limits of imaging and if they are fully aware what modern super-resolution methods can provide.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

There is still so much to do! We need better energy sources and energy storage to save our planet before it is too late. In general, we want to understand nature much better and the universe surrounding us.

Regarding our own research, I would love to see our method succeed and provide higher spatial resolutions. This would have an unprecedented positive effect on a large number of scientific fields.

It has taken more than 300 years of innovation from the earliest microscopes to today’s systems. However, improvements in spatial resolution were stopped for almost a century within that timeframe due to the diffraction limit of light. Techniques to routinely overcome this physical limit have only relatively recently been developed. This is a challenge we are very passionate about.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.