Zachary Katz is a visual person: from insect-devouring plants to bustling cells, he strives to see what happens in nature. While growing up in Arizona and then Florida, Katz and his brother gathered specimens of rocks and plants (particularly of the carnivorous variety). Katz took up photography to catalog his collections, leading to his interest in another method for visualizing the natural world, microscopy.

In the lab, Katz creates new kinds of microscopes to observe single immune cells, the body’s first responders to threats. Immune system sentries called T cells rapidly summon a swarm of defensive cells when they detect intruders. But when T cells aren’t operating correctly, they can mistakenly ignore deadly threats (like cancer) or attack the body and cause autoimmune or immune-deficiency disorders, such as allergies and type 1 diabetes.

T cells malfunction when proteins on their outside membrane confuse safe cells with sick ones. By building tools to observe which—and where—molecules are interacting with those membrane proteins, Katz can find ways to control T cells. To catch the motion of these fleeting interactions, Katz programs strobe lasers to light up molecular interactions in pulses without bleaching them. Charting never-before-seen interactions on the T cell’s surface is the first step in designing small molecules that can turn on or off T cells at will, providing a new defense against a host of diseases.

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