Johns Hopkins Expert to Share $17 Million Chan Zuckerberg Award

03/19/2019

Scot Kuo, Ph.D., makes the super small visible. He tracks how cells—often smaller than the width of a human hair—move and interact with other cells.

Scot Kuo, Ph.D., makes the super small visible. He tracks how cells—often smaller than the width of a human hair—move and interact with other cells. He uses high-resolution microscopes to zoom in on individual parts and proteins within cells, down to the molecular level. Kuo’s pioneering work to improve the field of microscopy has helped hundreds of scientists at Johns Hopkins look far more closely at cells and the structures within them.

Now, Kuo is one of 17 scientists in the U.S.—engineers, physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists and biologists—who will share in $17 million from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), the foundation launched by Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan.

Kuo, associate professor of biomedical engineering and cell biology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, will receive $1.2 million over the next five years. He is also director of the School of Medicine’s Microscope Facility and director of imaging at the Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences.

The Microscope Facility is outfitted with 21 high-powered microscopes that vary in their ability to see fine detail and the speed of images captured. Most of the microscopes in the facility work like the Google Earth of biology, where scientists can zoom in and out of cells and other biological samples.

Kuo has spent more than 20 years taking existing technologies and tools and improving them—with better software, hardware and sometimes a roll of duct tape—to help his scientific peers answer the most pressing questions in biology. The CZI funds will help Kuo make new inventions that will push the field of microscopy further and spur scientists to make progress toward improving human health.

Among the more challenging questions in the imaging field, says Kuo, is looking at big structures, such as whole brains or organisms, in fine detail over time. As light goes deeper into thick tissue, it gets distorted, and this poses a problem for microscopes that use light to image biological samples.

Physicists have a strategy to solve a similar problem in astronomy where wind and other atmospheric elements distort the image of stars so that they appear to blur and twinkle. Kuo says that telescope technology, called adaptive optics, is being applied to biology, too. He and other scientists are developing algorithms to map and account for how light bends in tissues so that they can sharpen biological images.

Read the full list of newly designated CZI imaging scientists.