UC Davis wins 2 awards from the WM Keck Foundation


March 7, 2022—For the first time in the history of the university, the WM Keck Foundation has awarded two research teams at the University of California, Davis, each with $1 million in the same award cycle.

The two grants will support innovative research projects that have the potential to achieve major breakthroughs in their respective fields. One will study where chemical reactions take place in deep regions of the brain to improve the treatment of brain diseases; the other will create new technologies for communications and medicine using wavelengths that are currently unused.

Professor Lin Tian in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine at UC Davis School of Medicine is conducting research on the brain along with Associate Professor Na Ji of UC Berkeley. Associate Professors Josh Hihath and Sebastian Gomez-Diaz in the Faculty of Electrical and Computer Engineering lead the technology research.

“This support from the Keck Foundation will enable truly groundbreaking research with tremendous potential to open new frontiers of innovation in medicine and communications,” said Prasant Mohapatra, vice chancellor of the UC Davis Office of Research.

The WM Keck Foundation was established in Los Angeles in 1954 by William Myron Keck, founder of the Superior Oil Company. As one of the nation’s largest philanthropic organizations, the WM Keck Foundation supports outstanding scientific, technical and medical research. The foundation also supports basic education and maintains a program in Southern California to support arts and culture, education, health and community projects.

Understanding deep regions of the brain to improve treatments

Tian and Ji aim to gain a deeper understanding of when and where neurochemicals are released in the brain and how these complex signals shape the function and structure of neural circuits.

Tian’s team will develop protein-based sensors that can report the presence of neural signals in the brain by emitting far-red and near-infrared light. By collaborating with Ji’s lab at UC Berkeley, which specializes in microscopy and provides high-resolution imaging of the brain, they plan to use the sensors to monitor activity in deep brain structures.

“One of the current limitations in microscopy and other sensors is that there is a limit to the depth of penetration,” Tian said. “So we can only see a very small part of the brain and how these chemicals are released.” As a result, we don’t have a global picture of how neurochemicals are released in the brain.

Because of this obstacle, drugs used to treat conditions such as schizophrenia and addiction, as well as neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s, often have unwanted side effects such as depression. This endeavor will allow Tian and Ji to study the mechanistic effects of therapeutic neural drugs before and after treatment to curb these effects.

“The treatment of neuropsychiatric disorders has changed little over the past 40 years because of a lack of understanding of when and where neurochemicals are released and how this complex signaling contributes to normal brain function,” Tian said. “Understanding these fundamental mechanisms will provide insights for future treatments.”

This research can help not only her own team but also the broader scientific community to understand the brain – and its disorders and their treatments – much better.

“The Keck Prize means a lot to us scientists because it shows that we shouldn’t be afraid to take risky paths,” Tian said. “It also gives us the freedom to be creative.”

Terahertz technologies create new possibilities in medicine and communication

Hihath and Gomez-Diaz’s research aims to construct the next generation of miniaturized light sources that could have significant implications for communication, imaging and sensor systems, as well as biology and medicine.

Associate Professors Josh Hihath (left) and Sebastian Gomez-Diaz (right), Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, received a $1 million grant from the WM Keck Foundation to work on terahertz communications technology. (Megan Taylor)

Everyday technology operates at either relatively low frequencies (radios, microwaves, smartphones) or high frequencies (LEDs, lasers), but there is an area in between known as the terahertz gap that no practical technologies can yet exploit.

“We don’t have the technology to generate light at terahertz and far-infrared wavelengths in a simple, efficient, and portable way,” Gomez-Diaz said.

The goal of Hihath and Gomez-Diaz is to develop miniaturized, portable and affordable devices to emit light in this wavelength range and open up new possibilities for terahertz technologies.

“We’re trying to find new ways to manipulate and control light at the nanoscale by tailoring the response of two-dimensional materials like graphene to collect light emitted by electrons,” Gomez-Diaz said.

The idea is based on controlling the conditions under which Cherenkov radiation takes place. This light is usually generated by high-energy electrons. A common example is the blue glow that appears on an underwater nuclear reactor. By tuning the electromagnetic properties of the media surrounding an electric current, Cherenkov radiation at desired wavelengths can be obtained with simple electrical controls instead of high-energy nuclear reactors.

“This can have important applications in biology and medicine, communications, sensing and more,” Gomez-Diaz said. “More importantly, there are many applications that we don’t yet know about because this frequency range has not yet been fully explored.”

Gomez-Diaz also pointed to the importance of the Keck Foundation’s support in funding what he describes as a high-risk and rewarding endeavor.

“We are grateful to the Keck Foundation for supporting risky basic research that is often overlooked by federal funding agencies but can have a major impact on the future of our society,” he said.


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