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PhD Aurimas Vyšniauskas: Science is like Treasure Hunt


This August one of the best international journals “Chemistry: A European Journal” published scientific article of PhD Aurimas Vyšniauskas, senior research scientist of the Department of Molecular Compound Physics in the Center for Physical sciences and technology (FTMC). In addition, the illustration of the Article was printed on the cover of this magazine.
“I am very glad. This is important evaluation of all my researches on this subject. It’s a significant acknowledgment that our team's first-ever world-wide scientific experimentally based findings on fluorescent viscosity sensing processes - are the unique scientific discovery.” - says PhD A. Vyšniauskas, FTMC chemical scientist. - "These latest findings from our work on fluorescent viscosity sensor molecules are the important step in the cure of Alzheimer's disease and diabetes, diseases called civilization epidemics."
Dr. Aurimas Vyšniauskas savo kabinete. R.Stalionytės nuotrauka

The title of the article is „Enhancing the Viscosity‐Sensitive Range of a BODIPY Molecular Rotor by Two Orders of Magnitude“. Article authors: scientific lead author PhD A. Vyšniauskas with colleagues from FTMC and Vilnius University (VU). This top-ranked article is the first of a total of 16 Ph. D. A. Vyšniauskas scientific publications, where he is the author of the idea and head of scientific work. Research object of this article - fluorescent viscosity sensors in molecules.

With an interest in spectroscopy, he defended his PhD abroad on this topic and has been studying viscosity sensing molecule processes for 7 years. 31-year-old chemist PhD A. Vyšniauskas received his master's and doctoral degrees at Oxford and Imperial College in London, but returned to work in Lithuania. Now he’s been working in in the Center of Physical and Sciences and Technology (FTMC) for 2,5 years and says, that is happy to have a possibility realize his scientific ideas and searches in FTMC. According to him, FTMC is one of the best places for research, creation and young people who want to embark on an exciting career in science. Also Aurimas is a lecturer at the VU Faculty of Chemistry, is interested in politics, enjoys playing board games, and believes, that the researcher needs a good sense of humor.

We talked with Aurimas about the importance of the Lithuanian science and the discovery, published in „Chemistry: A European Journal”. We talked also about the challenges and joys, which researchers face in their work, the dark side of this profession and how to withstand the despair of failed experiments and the prestige of being a scientist. What does it mean to be the first, who discovers the treasures of science?


What is the significance of your discovery, which is published in „Chemistry: A European Journal”? What scientific problem did you investigate?

Dr. A. Vyšniauskas: The subject of the article is: "Increasing the viscosity range of the Bodipy type viscosity sensor by two orders of magnitude". The subject of our study is a fluorescent viscosity sensor belonging to the class of Bodipy molecules. We investigated a specific, currently most used viscosity sensor, and demonstrated that a slight change in its molecular structure can greatly extend the viscosity range of that sensor. In scientific terms, we say that we increased the viscosity of a molecule by two orders of magnitude. Until now, it was possible to measure the sensitivity of a molecule to viscosity only from 5 to 1000 cP (cP - unit of viscosity). We widened the range from 0.5 to 50,000 cP. For example, water is 1 cP, glycerol 1000 cP, honey 10 000 cP. Imagine a thermometer that only measured from +10 to + 20 ° C and now measures from -10 to + 60 ° C. This is a very significant increase in the viscosity range. That's really a lot.

How such remarkable results were achieved?

Dr. A. Vyšniauskas: We have replaced the ether atoms group in the molecule into nitro-group atoms. The result – we discovered a new viscosity sensor with a very wide sensitivity viscous range. In addition, we have not only discovered a new molecule, but clarified why exactly by inserting a group of nitro atoms thus expands the range of viscosity. The viscosity sensor problem is, that it was not exactly known how to synthesized new ones, how to change the structure of the molecule to make it sensitive to viscous. Our knowledge will help scientists in future to improve other fluorescent viscosity sensors. It is necessary to know why it occurs. Our team has achieved this. I invented how to change the structure of the molecule, my colleagues have synthesized and – it worked. Also our scientific research will help other scientists to develop new viscosity sensors, because it is not enough "blindly" to synthesize molecules and hope for success that they will be more viscosity sensitive. It is not very effective (smiling).

How would you explain all this process of the fluorescing of viscosity sensor?

Dr. A. Vyšniauskas: As a rule, when the fluorescing molecule is litting up, it illuminates the light back outward. When viscosity sensors are excited, they also rotate. The faster they spin, the shorter they shine. The increased viscosity of the environment, hampers the rotation of the molecule, the result of this process - viscosity sensor shines longer. On the cover of the magazine is the visualization of this process. According to our explanations, painter Gintaras Jacunskas depicted light-excited, rotating viscosity sensors. Thanks to our discovery, changing one of the atoms to others, the new molecule can measure a very high environmental viscosity, which the old molecule couldn’t.

You mentioned that every scientist has expectations, that the results of his work will be useful for the society. And in one or another way would improve the lives of people. What is the importance of this your discovery? How do new findings about the processes, occurring in the cells, would help to overcome various not treatable diseases?

Dr. A. Vyšniauskas: If you can measure the cell viscosity in as wide a range as possible – you know, how quickly the various molecules inside the cell can move. Using viscosity sensors, it is possible to find out what processes during various diseases occur in extremely small organisms, in every live cell. The doctors will be able to obtain considerably more information about how processes occur in various diseases (e.g. Alzheimer's, diabetes). In Alzheimer’s, the intracellular number of protein molecules jumps into the tuber, protein aggregators are formed and, eventually, the neuron dies - the memory is disappearing. Using a viscosity sensor, it is possible to determine changes inside the cell during protein aggregation. The results of single cell studies in diabetes have shown, that the viscosity of a certain cell membrane becomes abnormally high. As a result, the receptors are no longer able to transmit signals, and the intracellular normal processes are disrupted. The good, reliable viscosity sensor would allow to measure the viscosity of the cell and help the medics learn, how the cell is changing when the diabetes is progressing. The more you know about the disease – the faster you get the idea how to overcome it. Our discovered knowledge will help to improve viscosity sensors to make them more sensitive and efficient. These are just a few simple examples of how our scientific research is useful for society.
Dr. Aurimas Vyšniauskas laboratorijoje (D. Jokubauskio nuotrauka)

Please, introduce your scientific team of this work, scientists, who helped you to achieve such amazing results for the first time in the world?

Dr. A. Vyšniauskas: In the article there is named all the team, who helped to implement my scientific ideas. Co-workers from VU: PhD Stepas Toliautas and prof. Juozas Šulskus conducted theoretical calculations, Ph D Jelena Dodonova and prof. Sigitas Tumkevičius made viscosity synthesis of sensors. Audrius Žvirblis, Artūras Polita are my students, who helped to make measurements, as well as FTMC PhD Andrius Devižis and Postgraduate Ignas Čiplys. We all earned this honor and share it together. One person could not make such a discovery, because it is necessary to be able to perform very different things. It is possible only theoretically. For example, I wouldn't be able to synthesize the molecules, which I need for experiments. It is not my scientific area. It is important for the scientist to have a team of his colleagues, because it expands the possibilities of what you can do and what you can achieve. One scientist rarely "earns" honour, you must have a Team. Of course, you can learn to do everything on average level by you own, and achieve a moderate result. Or you can find colleagues, other scientists who are professionals. Only then you can win. This is called knowledge sharing. Yes, we are the first in the world, who have increased the sensitivity of this viscosity sensor in such way. And that's the our pride. If a scientist has aim the article to be publicated in scientific international journal, there must be something new in his research. On the other hand, the essence and meaning of a researcher's work is to achieve, measure, explore new things, learn new processes. You must be the first in the world, who has done something special, as we did and published in the article. This is really a good feeling, an excellent assessment of the long and careful my scientific work. I began to do experiments for this article two years ago. And the greatest challenge was to explain why the range of viscosity is so far expanded. Here the main help I got from PhD Stepas Toliautas.

Dr. Aurimas Vyšniauskas. D. Jokubauskio nuotrauka 

Chemistry was your favorite lesson in the school, later you chose to explore the spectroscopy, sensitive light viscosity sensors. Why did you decide to be the scientist?

Dr. A. Vyšniauskas: I have always been very successful in learning (smiling). And my thinking is "the objective": I like to go deeper into the problem, looking for reasons of the various processes. So I became a scientist in very natural way. I had a great teacher of chemistry in Rokiškis, my secondary school, thanks to her. I was interested in chemistry, had great success in competitions. If I had such a great teacher of physics – maybe I would be a physicist (smiling). But I really liked physics, chemistry, natural and precision sciences. I studied chemistry in VU, later moved to Oxford university. There also I was successful in learning and was leading student. Later my PhD studies in the Imperial College of London were very a successful for me. Yes, I had to work much, but I admit that I have and aptitude, I adore scientific research. During studies I realized that I like spectroscopy. This science, which is examining interaction with light, is like a bridge between the world you see and quantum physics. That fascinates me because it has a molecule, a light in it, and it behaves in the same way as the theory of quantum physics prophesized. So, in the beginning I invented. I ‘d like to be a chemist. Then realized that I like something between physics and chemistry, and that thing was the spectroscopy. When I thought about what the spectroscopy-related theme to choose during my doctoral studies, I’ve found a good laboratory at the Imperial College of London. The leader of it was a great researcher with excellent results. Her research topic was the fluorescent viscosity sensors and she became my PhD mentor. Yes, I am all in this field of science, and viscosity sensitive fluorescent molecules are the object of my research until now.


Why the scientific path is so attractive for you? How important are your scientific results for other areas, where it could be to be useful and realized?

Dr. A. Vyšniauskas: First of all, the scientist must be sure of his activities. Yes, I would be very pleased if my work will improve people's lives. But in reality, out of the 1000 scientists, who are researching, searching any field for all the lifetime, only the one will make a great discovery, that will really be the benefit for humanity. That’s statistics… For me - science is like a Treasure hunt. It’s mainly made by the small discoveries, which are slowly expanding the knowledge of society. Until, eventually, one scientist emerges from these small accomplishments the significant discovery. It occurs infrequently. Because if you think only about „the goal” and "build" a lifetime only on a successful amazing result - nothing will happen. You must like the research process itself. If the pleasure for you is only that “maybe once I’ll find something great” – there are more chances, that it’ll never happen.

After graduating the Oxford University and the Imperial College of London, you’ve returned to Lithuania and started working for FTMC. Why do you say that here’s the most appropriate space for the scientific research, creation and personal growing?

Dr. A. Vyšniauskas: We completed doctoral studies at the same time with my wife, as she studied abroad also. We saw our future only in Lithuania, so it was a good moment to return. I chose to work in FTMC, because there were scientific groups, that were doing deep researches in the topics I was interested about. Also I was looking for laboratories, that would not only have the necessary infrastructure for scientific research, but also there was inspiring environment for science. So, I discovered the Department of Molecular Compound Physics at FTMC, which then was led by prof. Leonas Valkūnas. I believe that this is the most important thing for a young scientist: to work in a good group of researchers. The Department of Molecular Compound Physics of FTMC - is one of the leading in Lithuania. According to scientific results, we are equal to the best laboratories at international level, our scientific work is much higher the national level. This is the main answer, why I am in FTMC. High quality laboratory equipment is also essential for the scientist. In FTMC there is everything I need for my work. Here I can always use colleagues' laboratories and get their help. Positive colleagues, who support and promote the inspiring environment, are essential not only for a young scientist. The constability is also important. And it’s a pitty, it’s not available in the Western world. For example, in England, it is difficult to get a permanent job in laboratory, especially for the young scientist. There is fierce competition which causes a lot of unnecessary stress. In FTMC I have a permanent job and I know this is my place. The FTMC also daily delights me because of the working conditions: we have spacious, beautiful, very well-equipped laboratories.

During September there’s a call for students to join the FTMC doctoral studies. You are also looking for a student. In your opinion, why FTMC is the most appropriate place to start a scientific researcher's path for a young person?

Dr. A. Vyšniauskas: I’m looking for a student, who’s interested in amazing theme of fluorescent viscosity sensors. By 10th of September FTMC still invite students or qualified persons who are fascinated by physics, chemical sciences to doctoral studies. I invite everyone to join us and choose the path of the researcher in FTMC.

Dr. Aurimas Vyšniauskas (D. Jokubauskio nuotrauka)

Why do you think it is important for a scientist to have "another life", different from the world of science? What is your favorite free time activities?

Dr. A. Vyšniauskas: I work a lot, but I try to balance between work and leisure. It is not good if the scientist has only his experimental activities. There are periods in researcher’s life, when your long time experiments produce no results. You works and have nothing to show… And if you don’t have other interesting life goals, where can achieve other successes, you run into depression. Because you’ve put all your energy into that failed research. Here’s the “dark side” of the scientist’s work. That's why you need to have a good sense of humor and find a life balance. I work so much, that I could have the time for my life. In spare time I watch movies, play chess and other board games. After the events in Ukraine, I became interested in foreign policy, and realized the importance of going deeper into world events. Because they, as it was shown by world wars, can also determine Lithuania's destiny and our lives. Perhaps politics involves me, because it's a bit similar with science: something's going on, it's monitoring results, you're looking at it and looking for reasons. Looking for a strategy - for me it is also mind rest. My head is made for this kind of work (smiles).
Cover of “Chemistry: A European Journal”
Author R. Stalionytė; photos by D. Jokubauskis and A.Vyšniauskas personal archive