Watching the processes of life: 2017 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year

Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science, Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science 2017

Professor Dayong Jin

We need new ways to detect the early stages of disease and cancer. Dayong Jin believes the key is for physicists, biologists, engineers and doctors to work together. And that’s what he’s doing with his team at the University of Technology, Sydney.

He has created new kinds of microscopes that allow us to watch molecules at work inside living cells. Using quantum dots, lasers, nanocrystals and other technologies, these microscopes will allow us to watch the inner workings of our immune system, see how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, and to find one cancer cell amongst millions of healthy cells. He’s working with Olympus to commercialise his inventions.

But his personal vision goes much further.

He believes that his technologies will enable portable, easy to use devices to detect the first signs of disease, evidence of drugs, or of toxins in food and the environment. With the support of the Australian Research Council he’s working to give Australian companies the opportunity to create these new devices.

For creating new technologies to image the processes of life, Professor Dayong Jin receives the $50,000 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year.

Dayong Jin brings a physicist’s perspective to the challenges of biology. He says that biology doesn’t have the tools it needs to watch the processes of life at work. And until we have that then we’ll struggle to develop fast, cost-effective ways to monitor our health and detect issues before they become critical.

“Biologists want to be able to watch and follow individual molecules in living cells. Then they could see exactly what’s happening step by step,” Dayong says. And clinicians need to find a needle in a haystack – one infected or cancerous cell amongst millions of health cells.

He compares the change to the transformation of navigation. “It’s much easier to drive with GPS and a smartphone map, than with traditional paper maps. And you can drop into street view and see the details. Biologists are still working with ‘paper maps’,” he says.

Two major obstacles stood in the way of creating microscopes that can follow live molecules.

Conventional microscopes are limited to half the wavelength of light or around 0.2 micrometres. The winners of the 2014 Nobel Prize for Chemistry smashed that limit with the help of fluorescent molecules. That led to laser-driven ‘nanoscopes’. But these super-resolution microscopes are too hot to image living samples, and too expensive to be developed into low-cost diagnostic devices.

Starting at Macquarie University and now at the University of Technology Sydney, Dayong has created a series of patented photonic technologies that will enable us to view the processes of life, and to create low cost diagnostic devices.

His inventions include new kinds of fluorescent molecules that avoid the need for high-powered lasers to view samples, including:

  • Super dots, the world’s brightest molecular probe for single molecule detection and three times more sensitive than the previous quantum dots
  • Tau dots, which flash at different rates allowing information to be collected faster
  • Hyper dots that can respond to stimulation with optical, magnetic and chemical responses.

Now Dayong has put these and other technologies together to develop a new kind of microscope in collaboration with Olympus. He has shown he can find one diseased cell in a million healthy cells.

Dayong is also working with Minomic International, a Sydney-based company on the detection of prostate cancer cells. That work has led to a device for routine screening of cancers using urine samples instead of biopsies.

His technologies have much wider application across diagnosis, invisible anti-counterfeiting inks, and even an optical safety system for motorcyclists.

Dayong now also leads an industry research hub which he hopes will enable Australian companies to commercialise these new technologies.

Dayong Jin

Further reading

Career profile, Distinguished Professor Dayong Jin


2007                           PhD (Physics), Macquarie University

2002                           Bachelor of Science, Liaoning Normal University, China

Career highlights

2017                           John Booker Medal in Engineering Science, Australian Academy of Science

2017                         The Australian nominee for the APEC Science Prize for Innovation, Research and Education (ASPIRE), the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science

2016–2021              Director, ARC Industry Transformation Research Hub for Integrated Device for End-user Analysis at Low-levels (ARC IDEAL Research Hub) with funding of $6.8 million

2016                           Knowledge Nation 100, Knowledge Society and the Office of the Chief Scientist

2015                           Australian Museum Eureka Prize for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Scientific Research

2015                           Founding Director, Initiative for Biomedical Materials & Devices (IBMD), University of Technogy of Sydney

2015                           ARC Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities Grant

2014                           Visiting Professor, National Natural Science Foundation of China, Peking University

2014                           ARC Linkage Grant

2014                           Commercialisation Australia Entrepreneur Grant

2013                           Chief Investigator, ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale Bio Photonics Grant

2013–2017              ARC Future Fellow

2013                           Excellence in Research Award, Macquarie University

2013                           ARC Linkage Grant

2010                           Early Career Researcher of the Year, Macquarie University

2010                           ARC Australian Postdoctoral Fellow, and ARC International Collaboration Award

2007                           ISAC Scholar Award (first Australian recipient), International Society for Analytical Cytology

2006                           Postgraduate Award and Innovation Award, Macquarie University

Image: Dayong Jin (Credit: Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science/WildBear)