By Robin Keats
Published Apr 1, 2013 8:00 AM
UCLA Associate Professor of Electrical and Bioengineering Aydogan Ozcan is one of the world's "Brilliant 10" scientists, as proclaimed by Popular Science magazine. Ozcan is the director of the Bio-and Nano-Photonics Laboratory at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, where he leads a team of students in creating breakthrough—and inexpensive—technological devices that bring the frontiers of medicine to ordinary individuals.
We could begin with any one of more than a dozen startlingly original inventions to frame the contributions of Aydogan Ozcan, but let's start with the crowd-sourced bio-game he and his team of researchers created to diagnose malaria. One thousand online gamers from around the world were directed to identify, then "kill" or "bank," infected red-blood cells that appeared on their screens as electronic images. Their success rate at identifying the disease was very comparable to that of medical experts. This decidedly non-expert methodology is designed for use in developing nations where hugely expensive diagnostic equipment is unavailable.
And then there is BigFoot, the name Ozcan gave to the monitoring software he pioneered that allows diabetes patients and others with chronic foot ailments to track their conditions at home using a conventional flatbed scanner and a PC.
These are just two of an apparently endless lineup of incredible ideas that spring from the mind of the 34-year-old scientist who already holds 22 patents, with more than 15 pending, for inventions in wide-field and lens-less imaging, nonlinear and fiber optics, critical coherence tomography and nanoscopy.
Ozcan's self-described "prize child," though, is LUCAS, an acronym for "Lens-less, Ultra-wide-field blood Cell monitoring Array platform based on Shadow imaging." It turns a cell phone into a diagnostic device by clipping on a gadget that combines an LED light, a spatial filter and a slot for a medical slide. Information is gathered by the device, which sends it off to diagnosticians anywhere in the world. Bring LUCAS into the jungle where people get little or no medical attention, and voila! Expert diagnosis.
Through the device, millions of people in such remote areas as sub-Saharan Africa who would otherwise go undiagnosed will be screened or monitored for malaria, and eventually for tuberculosis and HIV. It will also help prevent waterborne illnesses that kill about 5 million people a year. And the cost to clip LUCAS onto your cell phone? Five to 10 bucks.
No 'Aha' Moment
Ozcan was born in Istanbul, Turkey, in 1978. His father was a government worker, his mother a housewife. His education began in the small, Black Sea city of Sinope, which also gave the world Diogenes, founder of Cynic philosophy. "My family moved around a lot," he says. "Five different schools for the five years of elementary school we have in Turkey ... I think those moves caused me to develop skills that have helped me quickly adapt to things."
Ozcan went to Bilkent University in Ankara for his bachelor's degree. He earned a master's degree and Ph.D. at Stanford University, followed by two years in Boston on the research faculty of Harvard Medical School's Wellman Center for Photomedicine. Ozcan joined UCLA as an assistant professor in 2007.
What turned him onto scientific innovation? "There was," he says, "no 'aha' moment." But as early as his freshman year in high school, "the idea of proving something and learning the framework of proofs was so unique," he recalls. "That's when I said 'I love it' [and] thought I'd be in a profession that allows for the creation of useful things."
"Being a scientist and going to the frontier of knowledge requires a lot of dedication, a lot of small things put together," he says. "I insist that my students know that those who are successful in this profession are the ones who learn how to cope with failures. You improve from rejection; you write a new manuscript; you try again. Some people would say, 'It's enough.' I won't play that game."
It has to be that way, Ozcan says of his role as an educator. "Within the school of engineering, the function of a professor is to create new information and new technologies. You also have to train the next generation of engineers and scientists, so that new know-how is continually created to make life simpler."
Ozcan adds, "The definition of engineering, for me, is to make life simpler and better. That's the most important thing that differentiates an engineer's mind from that of a physicist. A physicist is looking at interesting questions, but not how a combination of disciplines could be applied to create things that will enhance life. That's the intersection of science and engineering and I want to be, professionally, at that juncture. Engineers need to be very multidisciplinary. That's what I stress in my lab."
The man whose world involves complex technologies like optics, photonics and imaging has a simple vision of his own future as an innovator. "It's like a single picture," he says. "You can give yourself 10 or 15 years to paint it, but then it's going to be something you can admire. That's how I take my career. I'm in the middle of that picture now [with] the expansion of the cell phone into an array of telemedicine tools."
Cell phones, he points out, have better graphics processors than IBM supercomputers had in the late 1980s. "There are already 5 billion cell phones in use," he explains. "We manufacture 2 billion of them every year … There will be more of them everywhere on the planet."
With this phenomenal global network of smart gadgets, he points out, computation is almost free.
"Because cell-phone use is so ubiquitous and inexpensive," he adds, "I can rely on it … to design new microscopes and micro-analysis tools that look at bodily fluids using technology attached to the cell phone or running on it."
The "Nano Internet" and Beyond
The young scientist's next challenge is already obvious to him. He foresees spending the next decade or so building the "Nano Internet," which he describes as "the development of these personal micro-analysis tools [that] give us something more valuable than the tools themselves."
What he envisions are millions of his tiny devices interconnecting and streaming personal health information in real time, from brainwaves to blood-pressure counts.
"If my lab and others like it do our work well," he predicts, "then we'll have this kind of Nano Internet. The opportunities that lie ahead of us, with our eyes, with our information, channeled into the micro and Nano worlds."
These and other trails yet unimagined will be blazed from Westwood. "UCLA maintains and extends such vision," says Ozcan. "It's got everything I need to fulfill whatever I dream."