Xiaowei Zhuang, whose creative and daring application of chemistry and physics to key questions in biology has enabled observation of single molecules and the creation of pioneering “molecular movies,” has been appointed professor of chemistry and chemical biology and of physics in Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), effective Jan. 1, 2007.

Zhuang, 34, was previously associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology and of physics at Harvard. She is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.

“Professor Zhuang is widely perceived as the most talented biophysical chemist of her generation,” says Jeremy Bloxham, FAS dean for the physical sciences. “Her remarkable intellectual and experimental strength has made her a dominant player in single-molecule approaches to biology. Deeply immersed in chemistry, biology, and physics, she has facilitated deep cross-disciplinary collaborations and scientific insights that almost certainly would not yet have been achieved without her.”

Zhuang is a leader in the development and use of new imaging techniques that shed light on the behavior of individual biological molecules and complexes. Her work has elucidated cellular trafficking, the dynamics of RNA folding, RNA-protein interactions, and viral entry into cells. Her approach enables direct, real-time observation of complex biochemical processes, producing movies of cellular and molecular activity.

Among other such footage, Zhuang has used fluorescent microscopy to show for the first time influenza infection in real time at the single-virus level, showing distinct stages of the infection pathway. She is using this powerful technique to track in live cells a number of medically important viruses, including Dengue virus, polio virus, and avian flu virus. Her work has also provided many new insights into how RNA molecules fold into functional structures and how RNA and proteins interact.

Zhuang and her colleagues recently developed a new type of microscopy delivering spatial resolution 10 times better than that of conventional optical microscopes, putting scientists tantalizingly close to the first crisp, ultra-resolution, real-time imaging of living biomolecules and cells. The new technique, known as stochastic optical reconstruction microscopy (STORM), can resolve objects as small as 20 nanometers, a resolution Zhuang says could be pushed, with further improvements, to molecular scale.

Zhuang received a B.S. in physics from the University of Science and Technology of China in 1991, followed by a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1996. She was Chodorow Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University from 1997 to 2001, when she joined the Harvard faculty as assistant professor. Zhuang was named associate professor at Harvard, as well as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, in 2005.

Zhuang’s recent honors include the Pure Chemistry Award from the American Chemical Society in 2006; the Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award in 2005; an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship; and in 2003, a MacArthur Fellowship, a Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering, the Searle Scholarship, the Beckman Young Investigator Award, and the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award. In 2004, she was named one of the MIT Technology Review’s Top 100 Young Innovators.