Why you should care

His inventions could change the world. Really.

Every moment contains multitudes. In little more than the time it takes to blink, the heart muscles contract, pumping 5 tablespoons’ worth of oxygen-rich blood, while pulses of electricity ripple down the length of a neuron that then releases chemical signals to another — fleeting processes that together sustain the living machinery of our bodies. Engineer Keisuke Goda knows this, which is why he’s invented a camera that stretches out these events, frame by frame.

Goda’s camera is the world’s fastest, capable of filming tiny processes that happen in less than a millisecond, which could allow us to actually see how atoms behave in nuclear fission reactions or how shock waves might damage soldiers’ brain cells. Most recently, Goda has developed a device that would allow doctors to spot cancer cells rushing through the bloodstream before they spread to other organs — the cause of 90 percent of cancer deaths. Current imaging techniques aren’t sensitive enough to detect them.

Keisuke Goda

Keisuke Goda’s camera is the world’s fastest, capable of filming tiny processes that happen in less than a millisecond.

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At 40, Goda has published five papers in Nature, the most prestigious life sciences journal, as well as its sister journals. He’s part of a vast, burgeoning field, which emerged roughly two decades ago, that’s developing technology to image microscopic processes. But whereas most techniques involve repeating an experiment, photographing it at different time intervals and splicing the images together, Goda’s can capture multiple images in a single shot. Bahram Jalali, a UCLA physicist and Goda’s former supervisor, predicts his former student’s instruments will yield new scientific discoveries. Already, one of Goda’s instruments has led to the discovery of rare pulses of light known as optical rogue waves.

A camera that can take 4.4 trillion frames a second …

Goda looks ageless, his impish baby face darkened with thick stubble. He speaks breezily from his office in frenetic Tokyo, where he lives alone and directs two research labs that are nine time zones apart — one at the University of Tokyo, the other at UCLA. During his fleeting moments away from work, he watches Christopher Nolan’s time-bending epics, like Inception and Interstellar.

Growing up in Sapporo, he loved skiing and soccer and showed a flair for mathematical reasoning, winning countless Lego building competitions. He earned a Ph.D. in physics at MIT and conducted postdoctoral research at UCLA, developing astronomical instruments to detect faint signals from stars and galaxies. But he later switched to electrical engineering to apply his expertise to more earthly problems.

Attending imaging conferences, Goda wondered how he could apply his astronomy background to improving cameras. He knew that science often requires observing microscopic processes. The problem is: Things appear to move faster up close. Think of the last time you rode a train; cars in the distance probably seemed to be crawling, while houses along the tracks whizzed past. “The same thing happens in science,” Goda says. Digital cameras can take thousands of frames per second — but that’s still not fast enough to capture the details of microscopic processes.

Goda’s device could be used to screen stem cells before injecting them into patients.

Like all electronics, digital cameras are powered by the movements of electrons. Goda wondered whether using far smaller — in fact, massless — light particles called photons could speed up the process. So he developed a photon-based imaging technique known as serial time-encoded amplified microscopy, aka STEAM, which created images at 6.1 million frames per second, using laser pulses. A few years later, Goda kicked STEAM up a notch with sequentially timed, all-optical mapping photography, or STAMP, which can take 4.4 trillion frames a second, described in Nature Photonics last year.

Goda has also developed a device based on STEAM that can detect cancer cells migrating from a tumor through the bloodstream, before they seed in distant organs and cause the cancer to spread. In 1 milliliter of blood, 10 tumor cells hide among billions of blood cells. Today’s digital camera-equipped microscopes can’t detect them efficiently. But Goda’s device uses a microscope to photograph each cell in a patient’s blood sample as it flows through a narrow channel, analyzing its shape to identify it as cancerous or normal — in real-time.

The device could also be used in regenerative medicine. Although scientists have methods for converting regular cells into stem cells, which can then mature into multiple cell types, they don’t always develop into the correct type. Injecting the wrong type of cell into an organ — a lung cell into the stomach, for example — could cause it to become cancerous. Goda’s device could be used to screen these stem cells before injecting them into patients.

Goda’s technology is being used in clinical tests at UCLA, but will still need years of testing before hospitals could use it. And although labs from Hong Kong to the U.K. have begun using STEAM and STAMP for research, only time will tell whether they’ll yield any discoveries. Harvard University physicist Eric Mazur points out that STAMP captures a “very limited” number of frames. “You basically only get six pictures sequentially of one event,” he says. But they can still provide “a wealth of information.”

Goda wants to focus mainly on developing new technologies, leaving the fine-tuning to doctors and companies so he can dive into the next project. To him, shifting fields isn’t just fun — it’s crucial to staying ahead of the competition. “As soon as you walk on it, other people jump on it,” he says. “If I do things that are completely different, then there’s a delay for other people to catch up.” It’s another way to stop time, with a gift: “I can focus on my research.”

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