2021 Rosalind Franklin Medal and Prize

Professor Frank Vollmer for distinguished contributions to biosensing with optical microcavities. The single-molecule technique enables ground-breaking advances in how we use light to study biomolecules and their biochemical reactions.

Professor Frank Vollmer IOP Rosalind Franklin Medal and Prize winner 2021

Optical microcavities are fundamental components of important optical devices including lasers. Professor Frank Vollmer has pioneered the application of optical microcavities in biosensing.

Label-free optical sensors based on whispering gallery mode (WGM) microcavities exhibit extraordinary sensitivity for detecting physical, chemical and biological properties of single molecules. Vollmer has applied optical microcavities – i.e. 100 micrometre (µm) glass microspheres – as sensors to study at the level of single molecules a wide range of biomolecular processes.

After initial studies in biosensing/biophysics as a PhD student at the Rockefeller University, New York, and subsequent work on the sensing physics of WGM modes at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light, Germany, his move to the University of Exeter’s Living Systems Institute has now taken Vollmer’s research full circle back to biosensing and biology.

In Exeter, Vollmer has initiated the Molecular Mechanics Initiative (MMI), a cutting-edge research programme undertaken by a growing interdisciplinary team of now more than 25 researchers from physics and biology that seeks to make step changes in how we detect, analyse and manipulate biomolecules at the ultimate single-molecule level.

The interdisciplinary MMI team is now advancing nanoprobing of femto-Newton forces to interrogate the complex motions of active enzymes and to prepare the ground for future manipulation and exploitation of synthetic biomolecular machinery.

Vollmer’s research efforts are currently funded by a £2m Physics of Life grant, a £1.4m Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council Established Career Fellowship and a £1.4m US National Science Foundation (NSF) Bio-UK Research and Innovation grant. He is also developing quantum optical measurement techniques to exploit the ultimate sensitivity of WGM sensors when probing single molecules with single photons.

Notably, together with postdoctoral research fellow Dr Deshui Yu, Vollmer published a 400-page textbook about his work in 2020 entitled ‘Optical Whispering Gallery Modes for Biosensing: From Physical Principles to Applications’.

He organises the annual Single-Molecule Sensors and NanoSystems International Conference (S3IC), which took place the second time in November 2020 with more than 200 online attendees. Vollmer received the Wolfson Research Merit Award from the Royal Society in 2017.