Prof. Laura Na Liu stands at a microscope looks into a microscope.

Seizing opportunities

forschung leben – the Magazine of the University of Stuttgart (April 2023)

Prof. Laura Na Liu and her team are working at the interface between nanophotonics and DNA nano engineering.
[Photo: Max Kovalenko]

Laura Na Liu, a native of China, is an internationally renowned scientist, who works in the field of DNA nanotechnology. She is currently conducting basic research at the University of Stuttgart which, among other things, could also prove beneficial to medicine in the future.

Natural selection has produced many ideal solutions to various problems, Cells, which house the perfectly tuned machinery of life, being just one example. They can grow, divide, move around, metabolize food and energy, and respond to stimuli. “Our goal is to mimic some of the crucial properties and functions of cells,” says Laura Na Liu. The physicist wants to study natural models in order to develop artificial nanosystems – bionics at the nano scale. Liu has been a professor at the University of Stuttgart since 2020 and is the director of the 2nd Physics Institute. Her 15-strong research group is conducting research at the interface between nanophotonics, i.e., using nanometer-sized structures to manipulate light, and DNA nano engineering.

Watching is how someone sorts samples with the help of tweezers.
Prof. Laura Na Liu and her team are working at the interface between nanophotonics and DNA nano engineering, which requires a lot of finesse as the researchers use nanoengineering processes to create test devices.

In one example, she and her team drew inspiration from the ATP synthase enzyme's mode of operation, which can transport hydrogen ions across cell membranes in a highly energy-efficient manner. The way the enzyme works is similar to a motor driving a pump. Liu and her team are using DNA strands, which they assemble and fold in a highly refined process, as the building blocks for mimicking this molecular motor. This creates new molecular bonds between the strands of DNA, which produces the desired structure, which could be either two- or three-dimensional. “It's a bit like knitting a sweater,” Liu explains: “You begin with a lot of individual threads, which you then artfully weave together to create the desired shape.”

Liu's team is also taking another approach in addition to this one, which involves the use of semiconductor technology to produce metallic nanostructures, which can, for example, be coated with a functional polymer. An electrical voltage can then be applied to control the optical properties of these hybrid structures. In the future, the basic research that Liu is conducting could result in new types of minuscule but highly sensitive sensors, or perhaps in new ways of transporting active substances to the desired location within the human body.

The picture shows Prof. Liu in conversation with a student. It is turned towards the viewer. Your interlocutor can be seen from behind.
Laura Na Liu heads up the 2nd Physics Institute at the University of Stuttgart and is a leading researcher in the field of meta materials.

Liu has received numerous awards for her work as well as funding from the German Physical Society (DPG), the German Research Foundation (DFG), the Max Planck Society, the EU, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the European Optical Society and the Optical Society (now Optica). 

At the University of Stuttgart, she is a member of the "Biomedical Systems" Profile Area coordination team, in which various faculties collaborate on an interdisciplinary basis, not least with a view to attracting young scientists to this exciting field of research.

From Northeast China to Southwest Germany

Liu was born in Shenyang in northeastern China in 1979. Shenyang is located 700 kilometers from Beijing, 250 from the North Korean border, four hours by plane to Hong Kong, and an 18-hour flight to Stuttgart. Although she had already displayed a talent for physics in secondary school, she did not initially intend to pursue a degree in the subject. Eventually, however, she did enroll in a bachelor's degree program in physics at a university in a neighboring city before going on to complete her master's degree in Hong Kong.

Source: YouTube

Laura Na Liu talks about the importance of nanotechnology and offers advice to young scientists in the University of Stuttgart's "Made in Science" podcast

Towards the end of her studies, Liu had made up her mind to go abroad to work on her doctorate: “I wanted to see the world out there.” She considered the USA and Singapore as possible destinations but that was before she was visited by a friend who was pursuing his doctoral studies at the University of Stuttgart. “He told me how much he enjoyed the working group he was in and that Europe was an interesting place to travel to because of the many different cultures there,” Liu recalls.

The working group he was referring to was headed up by Prof. Harald Giessen, then head of the 4th Physics Institute. Following a single phone call to Giessen, Liu had been accepted for the doctoral position. “He then gave me carte blanche to do whatever I wanted,” she says. “If something caught my interest, I was allowed to pursue it.” This turned out to be a productive arrangement: doctoral candidates are expected to publish three papers – Liu published eleven!

Yet, she recalls her relocation to Europe as a "culture shock." Apart from the names of some of the car makes manufactured there, she knew nothing about Stuttgart.

"My first Sunday downtown after arriving was unsettling," she recalls. "Where were all the people? All the shops were closed. I grew up in Asia and was used to always seeing people, everywhere." Fortunately, she says, there was a very good, international atmosphere in her work group, which helped her to settle in.

Impetus for a new research focus in the USA

Around the time she was finishing her doctoral studies, a chemist named Paul Alivisatos, who was then working at the University of California at Berkely at the time, came to Stuttgart to give a lecture on the synthesis of nanostructures from molecular building blocks. Liu got talking to him after his presentation, and he invited her on the spot to become a postdoc in his research group. This opened up a whole new world for her, as this way of producing nanosystems was completely different. “That period triggered my current research focus,” says Liu.

Prof. Laura Na Liu in the laboratory. She wears a white lab coat.
Prof. Laura Na Liu has received many awards for her research work.

Whenever an opportunity came up, I grabbed it."

Prof. Laura Na Liu

Following her time at Berkeley she completed another postdoctoral period at Rice University in Houston, Texas, where “working with Naomi Halas, another renowned nanophotonics researcher, I learned that success doesn't last forever, nor are all mistakes fatal, but that courage, perseverance, and enthusiasm are essential.”

Research at the Max Planck Institute

All told, Liu spent about three years in the USA before returning to Germany. “I received an offer from the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems to head up a financially independent research group, which was too tempting to turn down.” The Max Planck Society institutes”, she says, are "a total paradise" for scientists adding that these are world leading research institutes, which enable one to carry out cutting-edge research and participate in extremely attractive collaborations.

Apart from the job offer, she also had private reasons for returning to Stuttgart: her husband, also a physicist, whom she had met and married whilst studying in China, was working in Europe and is currently working at one of the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research’s sites in Stuttgart.

By now, Stuttgart has become my second home.”

Prof. Laura Na Liu

After heading up the Max Planck group for three years, Liu accepted a professorship at the Ruprecht Karl University of Heidelberg in 2015, and was offered a professorship at the University of Stuttgart in 2020, back where she first put down roots in Germany. None of this was planned: “It’s just the way it panned out,” says Liu looking back. “Whenever an opportunity came up, I grabbed it.” And, she adds, she always looked for jobs that would give her a lot of freedom. “By now, Stuttgart has become my second home.”

Editor: Michael Vogel

Prof. Dr. Laura Na Liu, E-Mail,Telefon:+49 711 685 65218

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