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Ida Lee

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Ida Lee

Research Assistant Professor
Electrical Engineering & Computer Science Dept.
The University of Tennessee

Guest Scientist
Molecular Bioscience & Biotechnology Group
Oak Ridge National Laboratory


  • Ph.D., Physics 1991, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Work Focus:

"I image and characterize molecules and nano structures on surface by Scanning Probe Microscopy (SPM), and I also develop nano sensor."

Advice to Students:

"You need a solid background in biology, chemistry, and physics. Mathematics is a very important subject, also."


  - The University of Tennessee, Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science
  - Oak Ridge National Laboratory Molecular Bioscience & Biotechnology Group


Q: When did you first find that your career path focused on nanotechnology?
After I had my Ph.D. in 1991, I started working in a group at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The Group's major research area were developing various SPM and characterizing nano samples. The invention of various SPM enables us to see all kind of samples in nanometer resolution in air or liquid. It was a very excited time of my life. Many scientists asked us to image their nano samples, and we reveal many unknown properties in nanoscale.

Q: What current nanotechnology applications are you working on?  
Currently, I am involved with several projects. One is developing a nano sensor that can be used in space exploration to detect life-related molecules. Another one is using SPM to investigate the adhesion force, in nano-meter resolution, of single spore. The interaction and adhesion of bacteria spores at surfaces, the first step for the subsequence germination, is very important in the fields of bioprocess engineering, medicine, and biological attack cleanup. We are also developing Chemical Force Microscope to characterize and map the Lignocellulose, the wood chip or switch grass that can make into ethanol.    

Q: What's the most rewarding thing about working with nanotechnology?
We have imaged and discovered new properties in various single molecules and nano structures. It is very exciting to visualize something that no other people have ever seen before.   

Q: Is there an example you can provide that shows how something you’ve worked on has positively impacted the world?
We have shown that Photosystem I (PSI) reaction centers, the photosynthetic protein for all green plants and some bacteria, are nanometer-size robust supramolecular structures that can be isolated and purified from spinach. Using the technique of scanning probe microscopy, we reported the first measurement of exogenous photon induced voltages generated from single PSI reaction centers in a heterostructure composed of PS I, organosulfur molecules, and atomically flat gold. This is a nanometer photovoltaic which can produce 1 volt upon light illumination. Since then many scientists started research on this topic, and much progress has been made.   

Q: What do you think is the single greatest impact nanotechnology has had on the world thus far?  
I believe the invention of several high-resolution instrumentations, such as SPM, STEM, really impact and accelerate the nanotechnology research and progress greatly. These are the "eyes" that let us see the extremely small samples. We really can't do without them in nanotechnology research.   

Q: Please give an example of what you envision nanotechnology applications leading to in the future.
In the future, I believe nanotechnology will develop compact and much more efficient energy devices, such as bio-inspired or nanoparticles enhanced solar cell. They will provide clean, lightweight, and cheap energy for everyone.  

Q: Do you find yourself working more in a team situation, or more alone?
All my research involve in a team. Some project has smaller group with 3 principle investigators while some project has larger group with 8 principle investigators.   

Q: If you work more as a team, what are some of the other areas of expertise of your team members?   
We have experts in biology, biochemistry, physics, material science, chemistry, and chemical engineering.  

Q: Did your university training help you in your nanotechnology work?
Yes, the training in mathematics and quantum mechanics is very helpful in nanotechnology research.  

Q: Do you have a mentor?  Did you in your college years?
I have many mentors through out my career. I often seek advice from many experts in other area, also.

Q: If you had to do it all over again, would you still focus on nanotechnology applications?
Yes, it is a very exciting to focus on nanotechnology research. 

Q: If a high school or college student was interested in nanotechnology, what advice would you give them to help prepare take on those roles?  
You need a solid background in biology, chemistry, and physics. Mathematics is a very important subject, also.

Q: What other advice do you have for pre-university students?
Beside studying hard, it is very helpful to join some related club, such as science club, math club, or scholar bowl, etc.