MRL MVPs: Pinshane Huang

Pinshane Huang is a photographer. Her camera—an electron microscope. Her subject—individual atoms.

Written by Amber Rose

A person smiling at cameraDescription automatically generatedGrowing up, Pinshane Huang and her dad, a software engineer, would pull the Fry’s Electronics ad from the paper every Sunday. It seemed like the advertised price of a megabyte of data storage went down each week. This had an incredible real-world impact on Huang. Her parents are immigrants who came to the United States from Taiwan before she was born. It cost them a lot of money to make a long-distance phone call home. But by the time she was a teenager, Skype existed, and the call home was free. “The improvement in computer technology really had an influence on my life,” Huang says. “I could see how quickly computing technology changed, not only over the course of my lifetime, but even just within my young adulthood years.”

During this time, the internet became common. Computers became fast and phones became smartphones. A lot of those advances have been a result of materials. “Part of the reason we have the electronics we have today is because we can make semiconductor materials extraordinarily well,” Huang says. “The reason I ended up in electron microscopy is because I had been reading about a grand materials challenge to continue to make computers smaller and faster. I was so impressed that I knew what I wanted to work on.”

Small things considered

Huang started her academic career studying physics at Carleton College, graduating with her bachelor’s degree with distinction. She then pursued a master’s degree and PhD in applied and engineering physics at Cornell University, where her interests started to lean more toward materials science. “I went to a small liberal arts school [for undergrad] and there was no materials science department,” Huang says. “Once I took a materials science class, I was like, wow, this is all the things that I like, all at once. This idea of imaging materials at the atomic scale, that is something I learned about for the first time in graduate school. And I fell in love with it, this idea that you can just look at where the atoms are in a material. It’s so simple and elegant and incredibly powerful.” After graduate school, Huang completed a postdoctoral position at Columbia University in the department of Chemistry.



"What physics promises, and what I think in large part material science promises as well, is the ability to discover the unwritten rules of the universe."

Pinshane Huang

In 2015, Huang joined the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign as a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (MatSE) and is also an affiliate of the Materials Research Laboratory (MRL). Her lab—Small Things Considered—uses electron microscopy to help develop the next generation of materials for electronics by understanding the structure and properties of those materials, one atom at a time.

The Most Difficult Video Game Ever Played

During graduate school, Huang was part of the team that accidentally discovered the thinnest piece of glass, landing them in the Guinness World Records. Things weren’t always so glamorous, however. During one project, Huang had been allocated a week on a microscope to try and image a grain boundary of graphene for the first time. While this might have seemed like a simple task, it was far from it.

The challenge was aligning the microscope and taking the images needed before the microscope needed to be realigned again in one hour. Even more challenging was acquiring images before hydrocarbons could creep into the sample. Hydrocarbons are present in basically everything, from the oils on our skin to the air we breathe out. Huang said this experience was like the most difficult video game ever played- align, run, click, repeat! After using up most of her allotted time on the microscope, she still didn’t have the data that she needed and was ready to give up. She called her collaborator, who is now her husband, to tell him but luckily, he never answered. With 15 minutes left before having to realign the microscope, Huang gave it one more shot. “That’s when I got the images that defined my graduate career,” she says.


Huang’s research group at UIUC focuses on nanoscience and electron microscopy that combines physics, chemistry and materials science. She explains, “We shoot electrons at things to understand where the atoms are. In a lot of ways, it's like photography. We’re finding an object and recording it. It’s just that in our case, those objects are at the atomic scale.” 

“The reason I do microscopy is because microscopy changes how we see the world.”

--Pinshane Huang

There have been four great revolutions in microscopy. The first was the development of the compound light microscope, allowing scientists to see bacteria and cells. The second was the development of the scanning electron microscope, allowing for even higher spatial resolution to see viruses and proteins. The third and fourth were the invention of the transmission electron microscope and the aberration corrected transmission electron microscope, allowing scientists to see single atoms. The next revolution in microscopy is a technique that Huang uses called electron ptychography that pushes spatial resolution beyond the angstrom scale (one angstrom is one ten-billionth of a meter!). This improves the resolution of images dramatically.

While remarkable, these developments have made microscopes bigger and pricier—aberration corrected transmission electron microscopes can cost $8 million. This severely limits the accessibility of such instruments. Huang’s group is working on using electron ptychography to bring the highest spatial resolution possible to cheaper microscopes. “As resolution has been marching upwards, price has also been marching upwards,” Huang says. “I’m really excited about our work. I think it’s the first time we’ve been able to break this trend.” High-end microscopy work is important to advancing research and accessing such tools will impact not only the field of materials science, but also, chemistry, physics, biology and more.  

Luck disguised as failure

To Huang, failure is part of the job description. “You just have to pick yourself up and dust it off and keep going,” she says. “Being successful in science is not so much about just luck. Luck will present itself in all sorts of different ways at different times. A lot of it is knowing when you’re having some good luck and then figuring out what to make of that. Those little strokes of luck are not always what you think they look like. Luck is often disguised as failure.”

Huang loves teaching freshman and seeing her students blossom scientifically and then leave as people she has a lot of respect for. “They’re incredible thinkers, incredible doers. And I know that whenever they leave, they’re going to have a huge impact on the world,” Huang says. To younger students, she advises that the people around you are the most important thing. If you can surround yourself with great collaborators, great people to learn from and work with, then that is worth more than any textbook you can find.