Na Ji received her PhD from University of California, Berkeley in 2005 working in non-linear optics, so she is relatively new to the field of optical microscopy and neuroscience.
After completing her PhD, she began contemplating her future in a field where most of the fundamentals are already established. She wanted to do research in an area where we still understand so little and her research could have revolutionary impact.
"I actually got into optical microscopy because I wanted to be a neurobiologist," says Ji. "I wanted to look at the brain in order to understand the brain. If you look at biology, no one can really tell us how the brain works. Even though artificial intelligence is getting really strong, it still cannot do many things a human can do with a human brain."
Neurobiology interests Ji because neurons communicate with an electrochemical signal and as a physicist, electrons, voltage, and currents are something she understands. She also has a chemistry background (Ji received her BS in chemical physics from the University of Science & Technology of China in 2000) so neurotransmitters are also something she understands.
"For me it's also intriguing that I learned so much in physics and chemistry that I can tell you how a hydrogen atom will behave to a very high degree of accuracy, yet I don't understand my brain, which allows me to understand the outside world.
So I decided to go into neurobiology and was looking for post-doc positions, but no one wanted me because I didn't have any neurobiology background. So then I thought maybe I should develop a technique that neurobiologists would like to have, so they would have no choice but to have me around. So for my post-doc, I went to the Janelia Research Campus of Howard Hughes Medical Institute."
As future Nobel laureate Eric Betzig's first post doc, Ji began working on a two-photon microscopy system to deal with tissue sample aberration in hopes of solving a problem common to neurobiologists. Using some of the lessons learned by astronomers with adaptive optics and laser guide stars, Ji and her team were able to develop methods that allow for imaging deeper into the brain at higher resolutions and at faster time scales than previous methods.
After completing her post-doc at Janelia, Na Ji started the Ji Lab at Janelia where she leads a group developing new optical microscopy techniques for brain research as well applying her methods to understanding neural circuits in the visual cortex and superior colliculus. Her lab will be moving to the University of California, Berkeley in the summer of 2017, bringing her back to her alma mater.