Tyler Sano is a third-year electrical and computer engineering Ph.D. student working in Professor Holger Schmidt’s Applied Optics Group at UC Santa Cruz. His research interests include optofluidic laser sources and their applications in biomarker detection. Despite COVID-19 causing interruptions to in-person lab research, Tyler was still able to publish his first lead-authored research paper this past fall.
Why did you choose electrical and computer engineering for your doctoral studies?
I did my undergraduate degree in physics at UC Berkeley. I was lucky enough to do laser research with the Berkeley Laser Lab Accelerator (BELLA) Group at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in my last couple of years of my undergrad program. Laser research is what I am really interested in, and I wanted to take on a graduate degree that would allow me to further my interests in laser research and do more hands-on, technical work.
What has your experience been like so far in the Baskin Engineering ECE program?
It’s been a bit more interdisciplinary than I thought coming in, and I think that’s for the better. Holger Schmidt is my advisor in the Applied Optics Group and we do a lot of integrating optics with fluidics. It’s a realm of research that doesn’t just deal with hard laser on table optics and looks at it from a different perspective. Integrating lasers on a fluidic chip is a big change from how I used to view lasers, so it’s been really interesting. I’ve gotten to take chemistry courses that focused on spectroscopy and fluorescent materials. I’ve also been able to take classes in nano and biotechnology. And, the case study courses, which are taken in the first couple of years of the program, allowed me to explore different fields within the electrical and computer engineering industry.
Tell me about the research you’re working on in Professor Holger Schmidt’s lab.
There are three major groups in our lab. One department deals with nanomagnetic research, another deals with silicon-based optofluidic devices, and the third is more polymer-based, which is my area of interest. We fabricate optofluidic devices using the polymer-based/silicone material, and the idea for this is that it becomes really great material for being able to prototype biosensor devices. For the first couple of years of my Ph.D. program, I was focused on integrating an on-chip laser onto our chip. We have fabricated a distributed feedback laser cavity that we can fill with a fluorescent dye, known as rhodamine 6G, and we use the light emitted from the rhodamine to excite biomarkers that we might be looking for. The lab has proven that we can detect biomarkers in viruses such as Zika, Ebola, and SARS-CoV-2.
How has COVID-19 impacted your research?
For the first three months of the initial Shelter in Place, I was not able to go on campus. It was difficult to do research at that time. I had to focus more on research writing and theoretical work while waiting to get back into the lab. Now, our lab capacity is greatly reduced and we have to schedule times to be in the lab due to COVID precautions.
I got to speak on a UC early-career researchers panel recently to educate congressional staffers on how COVID has impacted the scientific community’s ability to continue their research. It was a cool experience to be a part of. I got to share how the pandemic has affected our research capabilities in hopes of gaining additional funding to assist with research recovery operations.
What has been your favorite moment so far during your time at UCSC?
Amidst the Shelter in Place, I was able to get my first lead-authored paper published in November 2020. Getting that first lead-author paper was a big step in my research career. It reassured me that my ideas are valid, and I’m making notable contributions to the field of engineering.
What are your plans for after graduation?
I would really love to go into a position where I can deal with lasers on a hands-on level. My project with Professor Schmidt and the diversity of the laser and biosensing research we are working on in the lab really opens up a lot of avenues for me post-program, so I am excited to explore different opportunities.