Andrea Armani, assistant professor at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, has been recognized as one of Popular Science magazine’s “Brilliant 10,” a selection of the brightest young researchers in the country. The Armani lab, her research group that comprises more than 20 undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students, conducts cutting-edge research in materials, optics, photonics and biodetection, spanning the fields of physics, chemistry and biology. While many people opt to choose a specific focus, Armani explores a wide range of areas. As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, she concentrated in physics but also took all the required courses for a degree in chemistry. She received her PhD in applied physics at the California Institute of Technology and earned a master’s in biology. For her postdoctoral work, she focused on biology and chemical engineering. “When I was in ninth grade, my parents told me that I had to choose a focus,” she said, “and now I tell them, ‘See! I was right. I didn’t have to choose.’ “Why choose when you can do it all?’” Among other projects, the Armani lab is currently working on a wearable sensor that detects ultraviolet (UV) light exposure as well as ones that involve optical computing and biodetection. The group is developing a UV sensor that can monitor a person’s sun exposure throughout the day. The applications of this device span many areas of public health: Those prone to skin cancer can find out their daily level of UV exposure and researchers can also use it to monitor the total UV exposure in children. Another area of focus for the Armani lab is optical computing, which represents an entirely new type of computer system, one that uses photons, or waves of light, rather than electrons. To make optical computing a reality, Armani is working on the building blocks of the system: building wave guides, splitters, couplers and lasers that will make the computer work and create switches that will form the foundation of a computing system. To transition from individual components to the next level of complexity, she has teamed up with Alan Willner of the Information Sciences Institute at USC. Armani also does work in biodetection. This involves passing lasers through materials that can sense when something as small as a single molecule touches the device. Using this technology, researchers will be able to study the behavior of molecules such as proteins, viruses and DNA.
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