Q&A with Yoav Shechtman

Meet the Zuckerman Faculty Scholar Yoav Shechtman at Technion – Israel Institute of Technology , studying “Nano-Bio-Optics

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“If you want to think outside the box, you first have to know the box really well.”

Dr. Yoav Shechtman is an Associate Professor of Bioengineering in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, where he is also a member of the Lorry I. Lokey Interdisciplinary Center for Life Sciences and Engineering.  Dr. Shechtman returns to the Technion where he completed his PhD in applied compressed sensing methods in optical microscopy.  He became interested in biology during his post-doctoral research at Stanford University, where he was fortunate to work alongside Prof. William E. Moerner, winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, studying single-molecule microscopy to observe dynamic processes in living cells.  He continues this research in his Nano-Bio Optics Lab, where his team develops novel microscopy tools and applies them to some of the most challenging imaging applications in biology – trying to observe life on the nanoscale.Dr. Shechtman was selected as one of ten outstanding Israeli scientists in 2021 to receive the prestigious Krill Prize for Excellence in Scientific Research, awarded to faculty members at universities in Israel in the fields of exact sciences, life sciences, medicine, agriculture and engineering.   A recent study done in Dr. Shechtman’s lab found a way to drastically simplify the production of precision optical components using a method of 3D printing. The novel process developed by his team simplifies the complex and very expensive process of creating these precision instruments. The study, 3D printable diffractive optical elements by liquid immersion, was published in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

Please describe your current research, the focus of your lab, and the practical implications of your research

My lab develops optical microscopy tools to help envision life on the nanoscale.  Our research is very interdisciplinary, encompassing biomedical engineering, optics, and biology. We develop optical, signal processing and machine learning methods, and do the biology. We are developing both the hardware and software tools that enable us to track different sources on the nanoscale, very precisely, in three dimensions. For example, many people are interested in the organization of the genome. You can sequence the genome and it will tell you about possible mutations, or whether you are prone to certain diseases. What it doesn’t tell you is how this long noodle of DNA is arranged. This is important because some of the regulation mechanism inside our cells depend on the 3D structure.

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The microscope was meant to augment the resolution of the human eye. But in the past few decades we discovered that we can send the images to a computer, adding an additional step in optics. We can create images that are not comprehensible to the human eye but are to the computer, and with a greater level of detail. The information can be encoded, for example, in 3D or multicolor microscopy.  We mess around with it and generate images that a human would not be able to comprehend, but that computers are able to. I call this “How and Why to Ruin a Perfectly Good Microscope!”

We cross the scientific fields of optical design, optical simulation, computation and machine learning (AI). We care about doing the biological experiments in our lab. If we want to demonstrate a new microscope we create cells with fluorescent molecules and do all the biology in order to have the models to demonstrate our methods. We have to prove to the end user –  other biologists – that our method works in “real life,” and that it makes a big difference. There are many good ideas that aren’t demonstrated in real life. As a very interdisciplinary lab, everyone is working on a different component, and one idea generates another. The students are the key here. They generate the work and are intimately familiar all the details.  Because if you want to think outside the box, you first have to know the box really well.

What do you enjoy most about what you do? 

There are several things. I love the interaction with the students, love when they tell me I’m wrong, or when have different ideas. It is the realization that this is how you make progress. Each student is a unique snowflake and has multiple ways to succeed or fail.  I also enjoy having a good idea and seeing that it actually works, especially if I wasn’t sure it would. When it does work it’s the greatest feeling.

What inspired you to pursue this area of research?  

I did all my degrees at the Technion.  I come from a background of electrical engineering, physics and optics. I didn’t know much about biology until I reached Stanford. That’s where I really got exposed to the world of biology and I am fascinated by it.  I chose to take my knowledge from engineering and apply it to answer burning questions – and I think the most burning questions are in biology – and that is what now fascinates me most.

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What does it mean to you to be part of the Zuckerman Faculty Scholars Program?

The Zuckerman Program funded my lab which ultimately is what funds my research, and I am very grateful for that.  Coming back to Israel made me realize that life as a PI here is in some ways better than in the States. Our students are serious, mature, focused – and this is incredibly important. I have found that most Israeli postdocs want to return to Israel, and the funding for new labs that comes from the Zuckerman Institute is crucial to making this happen, so thank you Zuckerman Faculty Scholars Program! And I personally have a double thank you, because I was fortunate to have in my lab a Zuckerman postdoc, Dr. Lucien Weiss, who is soon opening his own lab as a PI in Montreal.

Where do you hope your research will have the greatest impact? 

There are two fields where I believe we can have a great impact. That is in fundamental biology, to shed new light on discoveries, because we are giving them new tools to make new discoveries. In the field of diagnostics, we are applying our tools for diseases and antibiotics. We are able to do really sensitive biomolecule diagnostics, aiming to find tiny traces of molecules in blood, for example.

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