Xianwen Mao

2020 Regional Award Finalist — Post-Doc

Xianwen Mao

Current Position:
Postdoctoral Associate

Cornell University

Chemical Biology

Recognized for: The development of a groundbreaking imaging technique that allows for the visualization of various classes of non-fluorescent systems. The COMPEITS technique developed by Xianwen Mao, PhD, permits imaging of non-fluorescent processes—processes that do not give off energy in the form of visible light—with high resolution and under realistic conditions, and allows for the visualization of structural features, as well as the motion of molecules as a chemical reaction proceeds.

Areas of Research Interest and Expertise: Energy Science, Polymers, Imaging, Sustainability

Previous Positions:

BS, Tsinghua University, China
MS, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
PhD, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Advisors: T. Alan Hatton & Gregory C. Rutledge)
Postdoctoral Researcher, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Advisors: T. Alan Hatton & Gregory C. Rutledge)

Research Summary:

Visualization of chemical and biological phenomena taking place at the micro- and nanometer-scale is a critical ability scientists rely on to understand the detailed molecular mechanisms that drive important chemical reactions. Historically, the development of fluorescent probes—probes that give off energy in the form of visible light—has revolutionized this ability, but the use of probes typically requires the addition of a fluorescent chemical compound, known as a fluorophore, that can re-emit light when exposed to energy, since most chemical and biological molecules do not naturally fluoresce. Xianwen Mao, PhD, has developed a first-of-its-kind technique called COMPEITS (competition-enabled imaging technique with super-resolution) that allows for real-time optical imaging of non-fluorescent reactions with nanometer resolution.

Mao has shown proof-of-concept by demonstrating that the COMPEITS system is capable of reporting on a photoelectrocatalytic reaction—a light-driven electrochemical reaction on a single, solid particle—with nanometer precision. The particular reaction used in the proof-of-concept study involves water decontamination, in which solid catalysts are used to remove impurities. However, the ability to monitor chemical reactions that take place on a solid support in real-time has far-reaching applications in the fields of materials engineering, nanotechnology, and energy sciences. Conceptually, this technology could be broadly applied to image other classes of non-fluorescent systems, including unlabeled proteins and neurotransmitters, which would allow biochemists to visualize important biological processes in a non-invasive manner.

As a postdoctoral scientist, the most important thing is to embrace the uncertainty. Look for good problems, and ask the right questions. Many of my role models are Blavatnik Awards honorees, and I really believe this Award is for people who do truly innovative research. And, I am just so excited to receive this validation. It makes me feel more confident about the work I do, and the ideas and vision I have.

Key Publications:

  1. X. Mao, W. Tian, J. Wu, G. C. Rutledge, T. A. Hatton. Electrochemically responsive heterogeneous catalysis for controlling reaction kinetics. Journal of the American Chemical Society, 2015.

  2. X. Mao, W. Tian, Y. Ren, D. Chen, S. E. Curtis, M.T. Buss, G. C. Rutledge, T. A. Hatton. Energetically efficient electrochemically tunable affinity separation using multicomponent polymeric nanostructures for water treatment. Energy & Environmental Science, 2018.

  3. X. Mao, et al. Self-assembled nanostructures in ionic liquids facilitate charge storage at electrical interfaces. Nature Materials, 2019.

  4. X. Mao, C. Liu, M. Hesari, N. Zou, P. Chen. Super-resolution imaging of non-fluorescent reactions via competition. Nature Chemistry, 2019.

Other Honors:

2020Materials Research Society (MRS) Postdoctoral Award
2016MIT Water Innovation Prize, MIT
2016The Veraqua Prize, MIT
2014Eastman Chemical Student Award Finalist, American Chemical Society
2013Skoltech Fellowship, MIT Chemical Engineering


In the Media:

NY Times – Soap, Detergent, and Even Laxatives Could Turbocharge a Battery Alternative

Materials Today – Supercapacitors Clean Up with New Ionic Liquid Electrolyte

C & E News – Extending Fluorescence Microscopy to Nonfluorescent Reactions