By Kathy Kincade
Joe Lakowicz has always been a bit of a dichotomy. He is a pragmatist at heart; when posed with a problem or a challenge, he starts with the fundamentals, wanting to figure out what makes things tick. But he is also a dreamer; he likes to imagine what hasn’t been done before and how he might use those unknowns to achieve something revolutionary.
“I like to focus on what people aren’t doing, to work where they aren’t working,” he says.
His ability to think outside the box has, in fact, served him well since his days growing up in Philadelphia. Today he is director of the Center for Fluorescence Spectroscopy at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (Baltimore) and a highly regarded researcher in the fields of fluorescence spectroscopy, sensing, and, more recently, plasmonics. But he didn’t start out with such lofty aspirations.
“I think I lived the East Coast version of the American Graffiti experience,” Lakowicz says. “All the dancing and cars. I basically grew up hanging out on the streets doing nothing. I thought street racing was legal.”
Like many of us, however, his life was changed by a single person who pointed him in a new direction. In Lakowicz’s case this meant school and studying—and, more specifically, science and chemistry. The summer between his junior and senior years of high school he was introduced to a Jesuit priest who taught at La Salle College (now La Salle University). That meeting, he says, changed his life.
“I think I have been doing the best research I’ve ever done in my life right now, but I have also begun to change.”
“I was failing Latin in high school and one of my mom’s customers (she was a hairdresser) was tutoring me, and she told my mom I should be doing something besides hanging out on the streets,” he says. “So she got an appointment with this professor at La Salle and he said to me ‘come to my laboratory and do whatever you want.’ I worked in his lab that summer and went back for my last year of high school and studied for the first time in my life.”
Lakowicz went on to do his undergraduate work at La Salle in the late 1960s. He started as a biology major but found he didn’t like it and switched to chemistry—a field he has loved ever since, he says. The advanced chemistry classes at LaSalle were very small, and there were only about 10 chemistry majors in all. When Lakowicz took quantum chemistry, in fact, he was the only student.
“It was just me and the professor,” he says. “I had a wonderful education.”
When he graduated in 1970 he received a fellowship to the University of Illinois, one of the top schools in chemistry. It only took him two and a half years there to complete his Ph.D., and he had the opportunity to work with Gregorio Weber, who is considered the father of fluorescence.
“I really enjoyed the fluorescence, but at that time it was sort of a backwater technology,” Lakowicz says. “There wasn’t much equipment, and most of it was homemade.” He spent a year at Oxford University in England on yet another fellowship and spent much of that year thinking about fluorescence. When he came back to take his first faculty position, at the University of Minnesota, the technology had begun to change and, more importantly, the biology community had begun to discover fluorescence as well.
“This was about 1980, when lasers and time-resolved methods began to appear,” he says. “You still had to put a lot of stuff together yourself, and all the emphasis was on time-resolved measurements and data analysis. But a few years later things began to change. Where fluorescence really got its boost was from the applications, especially in biotech. At the same time, the biotech revolution was inspired by fluorescence. The human genome would not have been sequenced without fluorescence.”
It was at this point that Lakowicz’s academic and research career really began to gel. After joining the faculty at the University of Maryland in 1980, he published the first edition of Principles of Fluorescence Spectroscopy, long considered one of the fundamental textbooks in this field (it is now in its third edition). In 1984 he became a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in the School of Medicine and was named director of the Center for Fluorescence Spectroscopy in 1988. He was the founding editor-in-chief of the Journal of Fluorescence. His lab continued to do cutting-edge research in fluorescence and related fields and published regularly; to date he is credited with more than 530 peer-reviewed articles. He began to amass an extensive patent portfolio in fluorescence spectroscopy, lifetime imaging, and optical molecular imaging. More recently, he founded the Journal of Biomedical Optics and cofounded the journal Plasmonics, for which he remains co-editor-in-chief.
“I have always been interested in fundamentals and have used biology as a vehicle to get at the fundamentals,” he says. “I coined the phrase FLIM in the 1990s, and FLIM is now widely used in cell imaging.” Other techniques developed by Lakowicz have found important applications as well. For example, “at one point Stefan Hall came to my lab and we were working on the fundamental problem of stimulated emission during intensity decays, although back then we called it ‘light quenching.’ We published the first paper on this with him and then he went off and developed the phenomenon of light quenching to become STED microscopy.”
Today, at the age of 60, Lakowicz continues to pursue those things that others might overlook. His latest passion—in addition to racing his Corvettes and teaching himself the piano—is plasmonics. Specifically, plasmon-controlled fluorescence.
“The field of fluorescence--classical fluorescence, where you shine far-field light on a molecule and measure the light that comes out—is at a technological barrier right now,” he says. “Single-molecule detection is at the limit of what you can do, and the instruments are not going to get any better. You can observe a single molecule for 30 seconds or so before it photobleaches. But if you put a molecule next to a piece of metal you can make it last longer and fluoresce brighter because of the interaction of the fluorophore with the plasmonic structures. This is a new way of thinking and I get my brains beat out sometimes because I am always doing things that haven’t been done before, but I think the future is in near-field fluorescence with metallic structures.”
Despite his enthusiasm for this new technology, however, Lakowicz has encountered some roadblocks. In 2006, after 15 years of consistent research funding from a well known agency, and in spite of excellent peer reviews, the agency declined to invest in his latest ideas, calling the whole concept of plasmon-controlled fluorescence “too novel.” This decision has had a major impact on Lakowicz’s work and his lab, which is now half the size it was two years ago. But he remains committed and believes the field of plasmon-coupled fluorescence is poised to take off.
“Many people are starting to work on the interaction of fluorophores with plasmonic structures,” he says. “It brings you to a whole new way of looking at fluorophores. If you can get fluorophores close to particular nanostructures, you can get the fluorescence to emit in one direction, like a beam. And if you use plasmonic optics, you will be able to break the diffraction barrier, create a new class of microscopes, and trap the light in two dimensions. I am a bit of a dreamer, but this really is going to happen.”
In the meantime, when he is not in the laboratory, you might find Lakowicz on the race track or at his piano. Either way, he is always looking to blaze a new trail.
“Until five years ago, I never had a new car in my life,” he says. “I never had time for them, although I loved them. But I decided I didn’t want to die without trying some things. I think I have been doing the best research I’ve ever done in my life right now, but I have also begun to change. I am more interested in the people I work with and am taking the time to do other things I enjoy. With the piano, I choose a song that is above my level and I work at it. Along the way you have to learn the chords and your dexterity picks up.
“You learn by doing,” he adds.