Lili He, assistant professor of food chemistry, is featured in the cover story of the Aug. 22 issue of Chemical & Engineering News. It introduces this year’s “Talented 12,” the magazine’s second annual feature highlighting “skilled young chemists” whose mission it is to use “top-notch chemistry” to solve “some of the world’s most diabolical scientific problems.”
The editors say, “This group is monitoring our food supply for contaminants, tackling unyielding diseases such as Alzheimer’s, and finding better ways to convert sunlight into electricity. You’ll want to keep an eye on these agents that, with the help of our advisers, we’ve selected. We expect them to help safeguard the planet for future generations. And unlike James Bond, they won’t need Q to outfit them with exotic gadgets for saving the world. They can build their own.”
Assigned the codename “Contaminant Catcher” in the secret-agent-themed article, He is saluted for her food safety research, in which she uses advanced techniques including surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS). It uses a laser to measure sample molecules by observing vibrational and rotational motions. Metallic nanoparticles boost weak signals around 10,000 times, allowing the food scientist to identify very small amounts of targeted agents in a complicated mixture.
He says of the international recognition, “I am very honored to have been chosen to be part of this special group. I appreciate the organizing committee for recognizing the value of chemists working in food science applications.”
The profile notes that as a doctoral student, He was drawn to using chemistry to study “something as fundamental to everyday life as food,” and she “set out to find promising analytical technologies to monitor and analyze food contaminants.”
“Since starting her own labs, He has pioneered a SERS technique for studying the depth at which pesticides can penetrate spinach leaves. Regulators worry that washing the leaves might not be enough to get rid of pesticides, potentially exposing consumers to harmful levels of the chemicals.”
She is also developing SERS methods to measure and monitor dangerous bacteria and engineered nanomaterials in food. In the long term, He imagines using SERS “to allow people to look for all kinds of contaminants like pesticides, microbes or engineered nanomaterials in food. This could put the power to do food safety checks in the hands of concerned consumers.”
Editors say they chose the number 12 as a nod toward the scientists’ chemical roots, a reference to the mole, a fundamental unit of chemistry measurement. The International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry defines the mole with respect to the number of atoms in 12 grams of carbon-12.