Bozhi Tian has a thing for the unusual. The University of Chicago chemistry professor turns common reagents into unconventional materials, twists ordinary lab procedures into uncommon ones, and finds ways of using his creations in nontraditional applications..
Current Affiliation: University of Chicago
Ph.D. Alma Mater: Harvard University
Role model: Charles M. Lieber, Tian’s Ph.D. adviser. “Charlie’s vision, rigor, and commitment to pursuing science, as well as his remarkable support of his students and postdocs, have constantly inspired me throughout my scientific career.”
If I weren’t a chemist, I would be: A graphic designer or an architect. “I like to use graphics for better visual communication. And I have a special interest in three-dimensional complex objects.”
He does those out-of-the-ordinary things to advance the field of bioelectronics: Tian’s goal is to devise new semiconductor tools and methods to thoroughly understand and control the electrical circuitry and signaling pathways of cells.
Before Tian became hooked on science, he was passionate about art. He still is. The interest came from his father, a professional calligrapher who has written more than a dozen educational books on the art of Chinese calligraphy, Tian says.
Tian first tried his hand at calligraphy at age three. By the time he was six, he had moved on to drawing and painting and even considered following that passion and becoming an architect.
At 14, though, he “became fascinated with science, and chemistry in particular,” he says. He vividly remembers being wowed by lab demonstrations, especially ones involving fruit-juice indicators and beautiful color changes. It was also at that time he realized he could earn top grades in school if he applied himself. And so he did, hoping one day to combine science with his interest in three-dimensional shapes like the ones found in architecture.
That’s what Tian has been doing since his grad school days, when he worked with Charles M. Lieber at Harvard University. For example, at that time he designed and built flexible, 3-D, nanosized field-effect transistor bioprobes. The kinked devices, which were designed to slip inside individual cells, provide a direct way of using digital electronics to probe the electrical activity in cells that causes neurons to fire and hearts to beat.
More recently, he devised a novel lithography process to make spiny, vertebrae-shaped silicon nanowires that cling to cells more securely than do the conventional, cylindrical nanowires used to probe nerve cells, improving measurement reproducibility.
“Bozhi is the real definition of an interdisciplinary scientist,” says fellow Chicago chemistry professor Andrei Tokmakoff. He adds that Tian is also fearless, thoughtful, and soft-spoken, which is unusual in the materials business, where there can be a lot of bluster.
University of Chicago’s Bozhi Tian is turning silicon into a biocompatible material that can probe and manipulate living cells. Watch as the “biomaterials boss” explains how he’s exploiting silicon’s material properties to turn the element into a tool for biological sciences.
Three Key Papers
“Atomic Gold-Enabled Three-Dimensional Lithography for Silicon Mesostructures” (Science 2015, DOI: 10.1126/science.1257278)
“Three-Dimensional, Flexible Nanoscale Field-Effect Transistors as Localized Bioprobes” (Science 2010, DOI: 10.1126/science.1192033)
“Coaxial Silicon Nanowires as Solar Cells and Nanoelectronic Power Sources” (Nature 2007, DOI: 10.1038/nature06181)
Research At A Glance
Credit: Yang H. Ku/C&EN/Shutterstock
Tian makes novel semiconductor materials to probe and control electronic processes in cells. For example, particles that he makes of a spongy, biocompatible form of silicon adhere to neuron membranes. When a laser pulse heats up a particle, it induces a capacitance change in the membrane, causing the neuron to fire.