Contrasting real-life nanotechnology with the fiction of "Fantastic Voyage"



  • Daniel Heller (Nanotechnologist, Biomedical Engineer)
  • Shauna Sorensen (Painter)


Combining materials science, nanotechnology, and biomedical engineering, the Heller lab works on tiny solutions to big problems. The focus of the lab is the development of new types of nanoscale (extremely small!) materials that are designed specifically to solve clinical problems. For example, the lab is developing carbon nanotube-based sensors to detect early-stage cancers, as well as nanoparticles to target drugs to metastatic tumors. Working at the intersection of researchers who are striving to understand the causes of cancer and with physicians who understand the clinical realities of the disease, the Heller lab stands to develop therapies that improve patient survival and quality of life.

Shauna's first reaction to Dr. Daniel Heller’s work with nanotechnology was to equate what he does with pop culture concepts. "One science fiction trope in particular resonated with me because of its pop culture ubiquity, themes of discovery, and, of course, use of miniaturization: The Fantastic Voyage. The Fantastic Voyage is significant in that it makes visible a combat with internal health issues that we are not ordinarily able to see. However, the technology in the film is overly complicated and clumsy, not meant to work in the real world.  Dr. Heller’s work, on the other hand, is an elegant and conceivable version of the fictional weapons used to fix health problems in the film.  Nanotechnology may still seem like science fiction, but it is a much more feasible tool for the detection and treatment of cancer than microscopic laser guns."

"During the Art of Science, I was interested in contrasting the reality of scientific research with the fantasy of exploring the human body at a cellular level, personally destroying each tumor and clot.  The art inspired by Dr. Heller’s work is about exploration and research.  Proteus is meant to be overwhelming, with lots of little details made more complex by the tiny particles of glitter that shift perceptions of shapes and colors, creating a new image each time one moves and investigates."


Shauna Sorensen


Shauna Sorensen was born in Syracuse, NY and currently lives in Brooklyn. She is an artist that combines traditional art mediums with nontraditional subject matter and composition. She obtained a BA from Wagner College, where she focused on painting subjects from the natural sciences in constructed or fantastical settings. Her work addresses ideas about history, natural disasters, and violence in a humorous way to question the depiction of history and one’s personal experience with it. She is pursuing an MA degree in modern and contemporary art history at CUNY Hunter College. Her thesis is focused on artist Asger Jorn’s ceramic work. Shauna became involved in Ligo Project through her interest in creating conversation between art and science. She currently works at Open Source Gallery, a Brooklyn arts organization with a focus on socially engaged work and accessibility.

Daniel Heller

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center; Molecular Pharmacology & Chemistry Program

Daniel Heller’s research focus is rooted in Nanotechnology. Nanotechnology can be defined as manipulation of matter and/or molecules with at least one dimension sized from 1 to 100 nanometers – so, extremely (!) tiny. Nanotechnology as defined by size is naturally very broad and as such nanotechnology has the potential for a variety applications for research, industrial, and military use. Advances in nanotechnology may be able to create many new materials and devices with a vast range of applications, such as in medicine, electronics, biomaterials and energy production. Nanotechnology offers some of its greatest potential contributions in the precise control of molecular binding events and the transduction of binding phenomena – for example, such as that occurs when two cells in your body are communicating with each other – often through a chemical mediator that physically binds to the surface of the cell, also referred to as signaling.

The Heller lab is committed to employing the potential of nanotechnology for two crucial pursuits: the early detection of cancer, and the innovative treatment of metastatic disease. With a background in materials science, nanotechnology, and biomedical engineering, Daniel and his lab develop different nanomaterials that are able to target metastatic cancer in order to deliver crucial therapies. By collaborating with researchers who are striving to understand the causes of cancer, and with physicians who understand the clinical realities of the disease, we have a great chance to solve real clinical problems and develop therapies that improve patient survival and quality of life.

The Heller lab is also developing nanoscale sensors to detect cancer at its earliest stages. Using novel nanomaterials with unique optical (visual) properties, the lab is improving the ability to detect cancer biomarkers in the body, permitting detection before symptoms arise. In addition, these nanotechnologies allow cancer biologists to measure important biological molecules within live cells, allowing them to ask unprecedented questions and offering new tools to potentially accelerate biomedical research in many areas.