This is one in a series of profiles on the 2012 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal finalists. The awards, presented by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, recognize outstanding federal employees whose important, behind-the-scenes work is advancing the health, safety and well-being of Americans and are among the most prestigious honors given to civil servants. This profile features Jacob Taylor, a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Taylor is a finalist for the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal, Call to Service category.
Jacob Taylor, a young physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), has made pioneering scientific discoveries that in time could lead to significant advances in health care, communications, computing and technology.
As a fellow at NIST since 2009, the 34-year-old Taylor has conceived a number of original theories, including a way to vastly improve magnetic resonance imaging to enable probing down to the cellular and molecular levels. This approach holds the promise of providing detailed information that could lead to far better diagnoses, more targeted medical treatments for patients and rapid turnaround for drug discovery.
He is also responsible for a major breakthrough that could eventually permit the routing of greater quantities of information over the Internet than now possible, while using reduced levels of energy. In addition, Taylor has proposed a novel theory that could help advance the elusive drive toward quantum computing, permitting exponentially faster calculations then conceivable on conventional computers.
Mihkail Lukin, a Harvard University professor of quantum optics and atomic physics, said scientists around the world are examining how to harness quantum properties of matter to gather information with higher resolution and sensitivity, to process greater quantities of information faster and more securely, and to advance the technology of computing.
“Jake has made fundamental contributions in all three of these areas,” said Lukin, Taylor’s former professor and now a colleague. “He is one of the most creative young scientists I have ever seen. He thinks about problems in unusual ways and comes back with new and novel ideas.”
William Phillips, a NIST fellow and a Nobel Prize winner in physics, said Taylor’s ideas are at “the cutting-edge of theoretical physics.”
But Phillips said Taylor does more than come up with novel theories. He said Taylor “thinks about reality and the practical application of his complex work,” and is engaged in a wide array of experiments that could have “great technological importance” for electronics and communications systems used by consumers and industry.
One of Taylor’s major accomplishments has been the use for the first time of diamond-tipped sensors that can perform magnetic resonance tests on individual cells or on single molecules, a sort of MRI scanner at the microscopic or nano-scale.
No one had previously thought diamond crystals could be used for this purpose and in the way devised by Taylor. The physicist now has patents pending on the unique process and is conducting experiments that have shown success in the laboratory. The work raises the possibility that physicians one day will be able to use the technology to detect diseases at a far earlier stage, and that drug companies may be able to devise more effective medications because of the precise information that will flow from the advanced imaging technology.
Without Taylor’s “pioneering” contributions, said Lukin, “this field of experimentation would not exist.”
Taylor also is experimenting with another magnetic imaging process that works with increased speed and sensitivity, and could allow patients with pacemakers or individuals with shrapnel embedded in their bodies to obtain scans that now might be too risky. Today, the technology poses dangers to individuals who have magnetic metals in certain sensitive locations in their bodies.
Another Taylor innovation centers on the development of technology for the next generation of Internet routers that rely on light as opposed to electrons to communicate information. The information carried by the router would be immune to the environmental noise and defects encountered with currently available technology, representing an advance over today’s telecommunication applications by increasing bandwidth and reliability, and by reducing energy usage and costs. A patent is pending on this process and experiments are underway.
In addition, Taylor and colleagues are testing new theories that could help make inroads into much faster computing than now possible, an area of great interest in the world of quantum physics.
Taylor received his Ph.D. in condensed matter theory from Harvard in 2006, had a postdoctoral fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and joined NIST in 2009. He has already published more than 50 peer reviewed articles and been a mentor to graduate students following in his footsteps.
Carl Williams, a NIST colleague, said Taylor combines highly innovative science with a collaborative approach that “brings people together and provides inspiration and enthusiasm that rubs off on everyone around him.”
Taylor said that working at NIST provides him with the resources he needs, a stimulating environment and the freedom to take risks, think boldly and work on issues that can have a big impact for technology and the nation.
“It is a thrill to do something that no one has dreamed up or done before,” said Taylor. “The long term implications of some of these projects could be huge. It’s what gets me up in the morning-the feeling I can really change the world, at least in small steps.”