Gavin King receives Innovation Award for building first 3-D force microscope

King’s interest in science stemmed from tinkering with toys as a child.

An MU faculty was among a team that received the Innovation Award from the Microscopy Society of America for work in developing the first 3-D microscope that allows scientists to study cell membrane proteins.

After three years of work, Gavin King, associate professor of physics and astronomy, and his team received the award. The team created an atomic force microscope, which uses a sharp needle to make a "topographic map" of a molecule by dragging it across the surface.

King compares this needle to the way a blind person would read Braille.

“A blind person would put their finger on a paper and read the bumps as they scan their finger across,” King said. “Basically, we do the same thing, except instead of using our finger, we use a really sharp needle. We take that needle and we put it on a surface with molecules of interest and as the needle goes over the molecule, we see the deflection on the needle go up and down — then we can measure that.”

Conventionally, a force microscope can only read one-dimensional motion by bouncing a laser off the back of the needle. King’s lab has built a microscope that is capable of “watching the lateral dimensions at the same time as the vertical to encapsulate the full three-dimensional space that the needle could be potentially reflected into,” he said.

The microscope isn’t just a mechanical device, but also a set of electronics and software, built from scratch.

King said his interest in science stemmed from tinkering with toys as a child.

“I think that growing up I was always curious about things,” King said. “I would like to take things apart and try to figure out how things worked. If someone had a new, fancy toy, the first thing I would like to do was take it apart and try to figure out how it works. That sometimes got me into trouble.”

King said he was first inspired to enter the scientific field after realizing he could combine his childhood passion with physics.

“It wasn’t really until I was an undergrad that I made the connection between my childhood interest in taking things apart to physics, which is one of the most fundamental of the sciences,” he said. “You take nature apart and try to figure out how it works. It basically wasn’t until then that I was like, ‘Hey, if I study physics, I can combine this cool science with what I actually just do for fun.'”

Another member of the team is Krishna Sigdel, a research associate in the physics and astronomy department who has been working in King’s lab since June 2011.

Sigdel also received the Innovation Award for working on the microscope.

“It is really great to be awarded by this very prestigious award from Microscopy Today,” she said. “We are thrilled to have received this award and being able to join in the renowned group of microscopy innovations.”

Both Sigdel and King said it is difficult to tell where this new technology will lead, since they are still in early stages of research.

“At this stage we are focusing on the fundamental research related to membrane protein studies,” said Sigdel. “I believe that this innovation will be able to get new insights into fundamental issues which is lacking in the field at present.”

King said the life of an academic scientist is rather nomadic. After studying in five states and receiving his doctorate at Harvard, King said he has enjoyed his time at MU.

“I like it here; it’s a really nice place to do work,” he said. “I like the physics department because there’s already a big effort on the ground here to study biophysics. Something that is special here at MU is that we have a significant biophysics effort in the physics department.”​

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