The Department of Chemistry’s newest faculty member, Mikael Backlund, looks forward to devoting more time to science now that he is on campus and settling into his office and research lab.
“I’m looking forward to thinking, talking and breathing science again,” Backlund said.
A physical chemist, Backlund’s lab will be building and developing advanced optical and opto-magnetic microscopy systems and applying them to a variety of targets relevant to biology and medicine. The two primary tools will be: nanoscale magnetic resonance microscopy using quantum defects sensors embedded in diamond, and single-molecule microscopy.
Backlund is also a new member of the Illinois Quantum Information Science & Technology (IQUIST) Center on campus, which brings together physicists, electrical engineers, computer scientists, mathematicians, entrepreneurs, and other experts to accelerate growing efforts in quantum information science and train a quantum-smart workforce through collaborative, cross-disciplinary research programs.
Although his degrees are all in chemistry, Backlund did his postdoc work in a physics lab in the Division of Atomic and Molecular Physics at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and in the Department of Physics at Harvard University. And he has experience collaborating with engineers.
“I’m excited to be a part of a center like IQUIST that brings together folks from all of these disciplines who are interested in quantum science broadly defined,” he said.
Paul Kwiat, professor of physics and director of IQUIST, said he was extremely happy to have Mikael become the newest member of the center.
“His state-of-the-art research using defects in diamond for quantum-enhanced nanoscale microscopy brings us unprecedented capabilities for sensing and resolving molecular structure and dynamics,” Kwiat said. “Beyond advancing the field of quantum metrology, his methods are relevant to a wide range of physical systems, including proteins implicated in neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.”
Backlund’s research involves aspects of quantum sensing, more specifically, using quantum phenomena like superposition and entanglement to facilitate signal detection and analysis.
“In my case, the signals that we are most interested in probing with our quantum sensors just happen to be of chemical, biological, material origin,” Backlund explained. “I’m also active in an area of research that involves applying some of the mathematical concepts of quantum information theory to problems that are conventionally viewed to be in the realm of semi-classical statistical optics; for example, measuring the position of a single fluorescent molecule.”
While in the process of ramping up his lab, Backlund encourages any graduate students, undergraduates or postdocs interested in his areas of research to contact him.
“I have been co-advising a student along with other principal investigators in physics and materials science and engineering on a collaborative project aiming to measure magnetic properties of certain hard condensed matter targets using a ‘quantum diamond microscope’ that we will soon be building as a user instrument in the Materials Research Lab,” he said.
Backlund also will be teaching Chem 442, the quantum portion of undergraduate physical chemistry.
“I think this is a good choice for my first course, because I love the subject, and I was a teaching assistant for the equivalent class as a graduate student at Stanford,” he said.
Backlund received his bachelor’s in chemistry with a minor in mathematics from the University of California, Berkeley in 2010. He pursued graduate studies at Stanford University as a Robert and Marvel Kirby Stanford Graduate Fellow, where he conducted research in the lab of Nobel Laureate W. E. Moerner.
After earning his Ph.D. in chemistry with a concentration in chemical physics in 2016, he joined the lab of Ron Walsworth as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University before joining the faculty at Illinois on Aug. 1, 2020.
Being a principal investigator at a major research institution has been a goal of Backlund for almost half his life, he said.
“To be able to assume that position at a place as renowned and intellectually stimulating as Illinois is truly a dream come true,” he said.
And as important as the science, Backlund said, is the mentoring aspect of being a faculty member.
“I’m very much looking forward to interacting with students, both in the lab and in the classroom. Especially since I, like most everyone else, have been in relative social isolation the past few months due to the pandemic,” he said.