A photonic affair
Dr. Vanessa Zamora no longer needs to convince anyone of the usefulness of portable diagnostic devices that deliver rapid results. PCR and antigen tests have shown how important it is to quickly find out whether an infection is present. As lead coordinator of an international consortium, Dr. Zamora played a particularly essential role in developing a prototype for an entirely new generation of diagnostic systems. In 2022, she was able to present the photonic biosensor “PoC-BoSens” at the medical trade show COMPAMED — right on schedule.
As a physics engineer, her expertise was particularly vital to developing the sensor’s automatic read-out device — the first to have an entire array of cylindrical microresonators integrated on a single chip. Dr. Zamora, who has been a senior scientist at the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration IZM since 2019, worked with her team to create an optofluidic configuration that enabled them to connect the hybrid photonic chip with a microfluidic chip. But that’s not the only special thing about the system: the microstructures within the read-out cartridge, which are made of optical fibers, can be used for multichannel detection of target molecules. This makes it possible to diagnose multiple diseases simultaneously.
“The most important lesson I learned in my family was to pursue my personal goals with discipline and perseverance,” says Dr. Zamora. She comes from a Mexican family with a marked sense of independence and an inclination toward all things scientific. Her mother is self-employed and runs her own micro company, her father worked as an electrical engineer until the day he retired, her elder sister is a specialist in power control at a Mexican gas company and her younger sister is a professor of industry robotics, dynamic systems and cybernetics at a Mexican university. Vanessa Zamora kept up the family tradition and studied physics at the Universidad Autónoma de San Luis Potosí, where she qualified with a masters in applied science. She won an award for being one of the best students in all of Mexico, and then went on to receive one of just 50 doctoral scholarships that the Spanish Ministry of Universities confers worldwide each year. It was at the University of Valencia that Dr. Zamora first worked with optical fibers that could serve as tiny sensors. That was the beginning of her path to becoming an expert in sensor technology — that, and the three months of her doctoral studies that she spent at the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research in Mainz. For her doctorate, she developed innovative refractometric microsensors based on glass fibers. In 2010, she completed her PhD with honors (cum laude). As a post-doctoral student, Dr. Zamora made a detour to Edmonton, Canada, but as she put it herself, “the way people work in Germany and the facilities they have made a good impression on me.”
So she applied to Fraunhofer, and in 2011, she started work at the Fraunhofer Institute for Telecommunications, Heinrich-Hertz- Institut, HHI, as one of the few female experts in her field. It was there that her first patent (US 9,846,060 B1) was issued for an optical resonator array for increasing dynamic range. In 2013, she switched to Fraunhofer IZM. Now Dr. Zamora is a team lead, receiving growing numbers of industry contracts for applications ranging from medicine to quantum technologies. One of her focus areas is miniaturized photonic systems and interfaces with them — optical, electrical, and in the future, fluidic too.
So what does an expert in optical sensors do to relax? She plays volleyball, for one thing:it should be no surprise that she set up a volleyball team for the scientific faculty at San Luis Potosí and led them to second place in a competition. In Berlin, she also plays beach volleyball. “It’s a great way to unwind!” she enthuses.