Renee Frontiera

Renee Frontiera

Vitals

Current affiliation: University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

Age: 35

Ph.D. alma mater: University of California, Berkeley

Role model: Imaging expert Xiaowei Zhuang of Harvard University. “I’ve always admired her work and how her lab has made huge advances in both superresolution microscopy techniques and their application to a number of fascinating problems.”

If I weren’t a chemist, I would be: Teaching English in rural China.

When Renee Frontiera was growing up in Madison, Wis., her parents took her to a Christmas-themed chemistry show every year. The beloved holiday exhibition, put on by University of Wisconsin professor Bassam Shakhashiri, was what first got her excited about chemistry.

At first, she didn’t consider it as a career path. As an undergrad at Carleton College, she started out majoring in Chinese. But she took chemistry classes too, ending up with a double major.

Her undergraduate research convinced her that chemistry was what she really wanted to do, and by graduate school, Frontiera had gravitated toward spectroscopy. “I liked spectroscopy because I thought we could do really controlled studies to learn about cause and effect, how molecules work and react,” she says. “And I’ve never gone back.”

Research at a glance

In Frontiera's Raman version of superresolution microscopy, she uses two laser beams (a pump and a probe) to excite a Raman signal and a third doughnut-shaped beam to turn off the signal everywhere except in the center of the doughnut. This method probes biological samples (bottom) with better spatial resolution than conventional diffraction-limited microscopy has. Credit: Yang H. Ku/C&EN/Shutterstock

In Frontiera’s Raman version of superresolution microscopy, she uses two laser beams (a pump and a probe) to excite a Raman signal and a third doughnut-shaped beam to turn off the signal everywhere except in the center of the doughnut. This method probes biological samples (bottom) with better spatial resolution than conventional diffraction-limited microscopy has.
Credit: Yang H. Ku/C&EN/Shutterstock

As a postdoc, she was the first person to combine ultrafast Raman spectroscopy with sensitivity-boosting surface-enhanced Raman, allowing her to measure the motions of small numbers of molecules on the femtosecond timescale.

In her own lab, Frontiera is working on a Raman version of superresolution microscopy, which enables the measurement of nanoscale features in cells and other materials. Frontiera’s combined technique could reveal chemical information about samples along with nano­meter-scale spatial resolution. Previously, achieving that level of resolution in optical microscopy required adding fluorescent tags to molecules, which can limit the type and number of molecules that scientists can observe. With her new method, Frontiera should be able to, for example, watch how a cell membrane’s structure changes over time.

“We’re coming up with new spectroscopic tools to try to understand how nanoscale environments affect chemical outcomes,” she says. In addition to cell membranes, Frontiera plans to use her new tools to study solar cells.

Frontiera has come full circle. She helps instill excitement for chemistry in kids today by performing in her own university’s chemistry outreach show, “Energy and U.” “It’s a super inspiring part of my job to be in the show,” Frontiera says. “Students leave knowing the first law of thermodynamics, which is pretty awesome for third-graders.”

Three key papers

Ultrafast Surface-Enhanced Raman Probing of the Role of Hot Electrons in Plasmon-Driven Chemistry” (J. Phys. Chem. Lett. 2016, DOI: 10.1021/acs.jpclett.6b01453)

Toward Label-Free Super-Resolution Microscopy” (ACS Photonics 2016, DOI: 10.1021/acsphotonics.5b00467)

Surface Enhanced Femtosecond Stimulated Raman Spectroscopy” (J. Phys. Chem. Lett. 2011, DOI: 10.1021/jz200498z)

Stories in C&EN about Frontiera’s work:

GFP in motion

Vitals

Current affiliation: University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

Age: 35

Ph.D. alma mater: University of California, Berkeley

Role model: Imaging expert Xiaowei Zhuang of Harvard University. “I’ve always admired her work and how her lab has made huge advances in both superresolution microscopy techniques and their application to a number of fascinating problems.”

If I weren’t a chemist, I would be: Teaching English in rural China.

Michael Feasel
Marie Heffern