Newsroom: Highlights

Bookmark and Share Email Print

11.22.19 - Face of CALIT2: Peter Burke

Face of CALIT2: Peter Burke


Peter Burke is insatiably inquisitive.

That relentless curiosity has propelled the UC Irvine electrical engineering and computer science professor from one complex research endeavor to a host of others. From cosmic ray detection and quantum mechanics to semiconductors, carbon nanotubes and the electric properties of mitochondria, Burke’s research, he laughs, “has been all over the map.” He turns serious, though, when asked to describe his methodology. “I look for hard problems that have no known answer.”

The son of a career Air Force officer, Burke and his family moved every few years as the senior Burke’s assignments changed: from Massachusetts to Virginia, from Greece to Germany, from Oklahoma to Colorado. Young Peter learned to speak Greek in preschool and German a few years later, skills he says serve him well to this day. “It tuned my mind to new languages and I think that goes to why I can move easily to other fields,” he says. “In a new field, specific words have specific meanings. And no matter how smart you are, if you don’t know what that particular lingual is, you’ll never understand what’s being said.”

He laughs again as he recounts another advantage. During his preschool years in Greece, he did something some young friends disapproved of, and they proceeded to tattle on him to his mother, in Greek. “She couldn’t understand them, and I kept saying, in English, ‘I didn’t do it! I didn’t do it!’ So I got away with whatever it was.”
The family moved back to the U.S. when Burke was in 4th grade, settling in Oklahoma. Aside from not knowing what a McDonald’s was, Burke considers his nomadic childhood normal. “For military brats, when you move around, it’s not hard. You just don’t know anything different.”

He attended junior high and high school in Colorado, while his dad was stationed at the Air Force Academy. “We lived there about eight years. We got lucky,” Burke says about his final pre-collegiate home.

A top-notch student and an Eagle Scout, Burke originally aspired to be a fighter pilot. “But my vision was bad and I was too tall,” he states matter-of-factly. Instead, he studied physics at the University of Chicago. “It was the most intellectually rigorous university, period,” he explains, when asked why he chose Chicago. He completed his senior thesis under the tutelage of Nobel Laureate James Cronin.

Burke still marvels, not only at his former professor’s considerable accomplishments – Cronin discovered why the universe contains more matter than antimatter – but also at his hands-on style. Burke’s senior project involved working with Cronin on a cosmic ray detection program that analyzed data from more than 1,000 detectors, built in Cronin’s lab and placed throughout Utah. Burke remembers Cronin painstakingly gluing each detector to glass himself. “Here’s a guy who already has the Nobel Prize and he’s in the lab gluing these things himself.”

The experience taught Burke a life lesson. ”People who are interested in what they do, do it until they die. And I think that’s important: do something you love.”

An interesting tangent: Cronin’s thesis adviser, also at University of Chicago, was another Nobel Laureate, Enrico Fermi, who created the first self-sustaining controlled nuclear reaction. Burke pulls out a textbook that he uses to teach an undergraduate electrical engineering class on semiconductors. On the cover, he points out a graph that depicts the energy known as Fermi energy. “The work that Fermi did, he passed on to Cronin, who passed it on to me, and I’m passing it onto my students,” he says with understandable pride.

After graduate school at Yale, where he studied the wave properties of electrons and circuits, Burke did postdoctoral research at Caltech, investigating two-dimensional electronic systems and semiconducting devices. It was during his postdoc that Burke met his wife, Emily, at a swing dance in Pasadena. The couple now have three children: Scott, 16; Christopher, 13; and Grayce, 11.

He joined the UCI faculty in 2001, settling into research on carbon nanotubes, one-dimensional cylindrical molecules of carbon atoms that can be used in electronic circuits and other devices. He transitioned a few years later to graphene, a single layer of carbon atoms, tightly bound together in a hexagonal pattern. Since then, Burke has made significant contributions to quantum electronics and quantum information science, as well as high-speed semiconductor devices.

His current research focuses on designing and using nanoelectronic-based instrumentation to probe, measure and analyze electrical activity in mitochondria, which are known as the cell’s power source.

Because the organelles are so tiny – one cell can contain 1,000 mitochondria – the human eye cannot see their structure, even with high-resolution light microscopes. Electron microscopes can detect the miniscule mitochondria, but, Burke explains, that requires the organelles to be frozen. So he and his team are investigating ways to probe live mitochondria using nanoelectronics.

His goal is to build a tiny radio that can fit inside a single cell to learn more about the electrical behavior of mitochondria, and to better understand the basic biology of the cell and the pathways used by disease. “It goes back to my original theme of finding hard problems that are important and unknown,” Burke says.

Cancer, in particular, has a very direct link to mitochondria’s electrical behavior. “So understanding that is very important for understanding cancer ... and could allow us to develop a whole new class of chemotherapies. And that’s just cancer,” he says, adding that the research could also benefit diabetes, aging, Parkinson’s and heart disease, to name a few.

“Peter is at the frontier of mitochondria research,” says G.P. Li, CALIT2 Irvine division director, who has worked with Burke for many years. “He has that drive to develop the next generation of instrumentation that will allow us to probe the nanodomain in biological systems. This is what the world needs: someone who is not afraid of a very challenging task. Peter has that sort of drive and energy. Once he’s into it, there’s no return; he’s fully committed.”

Burke became involved with CALIT2 in the institute’s earliest days, attending design meetings for the new building, in which he hoped to have a quantum computing and low-temperature physics lab. Priorities for the new institute shifted, and the lab was never built. “This was not CALIT2’s fault,” he emphasizes. “It’s typical of new buildings.”

But in 2015, Li tapped Burke to run the institute’s new BioNano lab. Equipped with wet benches, fume hoods, compressed air, nitrogen and more, the lab enabled research at the intersection of biology, nanotechnology, information technology and medicine. It was a perfect fit for Burke’s research, and he jumped at the opportunity.

“At the time, I was looking for more space for my mitochondrial work,” he says. The lab also provided a research venue for two life science-oriented startup companies, which used it to test their prototypes. In 2017, the space was reappropriated, and Burke moved his research headquarters elsewhere. He has remained an important fixture at CALIT2 though, continuing to use BiON and the institute’s materials characterization capabilities, winning a successful Army Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) grant through INRF and holding meetings in the building.

He also founded a startup of his own, RF Nano, based on his research. Founded in 2005, the company built carbon nanotube antennas and integrated radio frequency systems enabled by nanotechnology. The company raised over $15 million in venture capital but like many startups, ended up closing its doors after nine years. “As with many new and risky technologies, the return-on-investment timeline turned out to be longer than the market’s patience,” Burke says.

DARPA and the DOD have continued to fund research built on Burke’s pioneering work, however, including several startups involving Burke’s former students, who continue to move the field forward. “I’m proud of them,” Burke says. “That is what we train students to do… not to be robots, but to be pioneers.”

Burke calls the entrepreneurial experience positive, and he credits Li and CALIT2 for encouraging and supporting him. “Somebody at the university has to be willing to sit down [with potential entrepreneurs] and say, ‘Yes, we’re going to try to make this work for you.’ GP has always been willing to do that, and it is just amazing.” 

Burke, who was elected an IEEE senior member in 2017, has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the Office of Naval Research’s Young Investigator award and the Young Investigator Program award from the Army Research Office. In 2017, the Boy Scouts of America recognized the former Eagle Scout with its outstanding lifetime achievement award.

He is still involved with scouting, serving as his middle son’s assistant scoutmaster. He enjoys hiking, camping and biking expeditions alongside the troop.

Burke has raised more than $16 million in research funding since joining UCI. His curiosity – and his efforts to educate – extend well beyond his research lab, however. He recently demonstrated (and published in IEEE) the world’s lightest internet-connected drone, built in his garage and weighing in at under 2/3 of a pound. He’s working with his brother, a former air force officer, to remotely pilot the drone over the internet, a feat that could lay the groundwork for remote identification, an important national security topic.

He also developed an independent iOS and Android app called iNanotube, which teaches the properties of nanomaterials to a lay audience. With a 5-star rating, it has been downloaded thousands of times in more than 35 countries.

Jinfeng Li, who earned his doctorate this year under Burke’s advisement and founded a startup company based on work he did in Burke’s lab, mentions his mentor’s constant search for answers. “Despite his great pool of knowledge, Peter has a mindset of learning together with his students,” Li says. “He likes research across different fields and explores freely, the same thing he tells his students, [which is]: ‘Do not limit your imagination.’ Peter is an explorer who gains a lot of joy through research.”

Burke comes from a family of educators. Both parents earned doctorates; his mother was a high school principal and college professor, and his father was a college president after retiring from the Air Force. His grandfather, however, never graduated from high school. “It’s the story of the American Dream,” says the grandson.

For Burke, though, academic success goes far beyond the accomplishment of earning an advanced degree. “A lot of people think that a Ph.D. is useful because you’re an expert on some topic and your expertise is what’s important. In my opinion, nothing could be further from the truth,” he states.

“The most important thing is that you move the ball forward in advancing knowledge in a topic. It’s painstaking and it involves many dead ends [as well as] dedication, long hours, creativity, patience and problem-solving skills.”

That forward momentum is his goal for the next several years as he continues to develop new tools to understand mitochondria. “I’ve always looked at what’s not known and what’s hard and what’s important,” he summarizes. “If it was easy, somebody would have done it. But the things that are hard to find out, those are the things that are important.”

– Anna Lynn Spitzer