Professor Receives Biophotonics Grant

Three million dollars to go toward development of doctoral program aimed at unifying the different STEM disciplines at UC Irvine.

In an effort to promote interdisciplinary graduate education, the National Science Foundation (NSF) recently granted $3 million to UC Irvine biomedical engineering professor, Vasan Venugopalan, to develop a doctoral program that brings together four different disciplines — physics, chemistry, engineering and life sciences.

The Integrative Graduate Education & Research Traineeship (IGERT) grant will be used to establish a five-year long doctoral program in biophotonics.

“Biophotonics refers to the application of optical technology to the biological and biomedical sciences,” Venugopalan said. “You can use optical technologies to visualize or probe biological processes.

“At the same time you can use optical sources, namely lasers, to actually manipulate cells or tissues.”

Already recognized as one of the world leaders in the area of biophotonics, UCI’s Beckman Laser Institute’s co-founder Michael Berns was one of the first scientists to ever use lasers to manipulate cells. Having extensive experience and acclaim for their research applying lasers to biological systems, this doctoral program established by UCI in biophotonics shows a progression toward the ever-growing research at the Beckman Laser Institute.

In hopes of not only furthering science developed with the use of biophotonics and technology using lasers on biological applications, Professor Venugopalan has worked to establish a doctoral program for students across many different disciplines to come together under the common goal of advancing biophotonics and developing new science.

“Our objective is to try to develop a program, whereby, students no matter what their background can early on in their careers have the opportunity to interact with students with radically different disciplines,” Venugopolan said.

Inspired by his own experiences from doing his doctoral research at both MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital, Professor Venugopalan is seeking to share the same interdisciplinary experience that he had, working with engineers, doctors and the students at UCI.

“I wanted to see if I could develop a program that would give that sort of experience to the students here at UCI,” he said. “The resources are already here, it’s just a matter of bringing people together in space and time.”

This doctoral program in biophotonics is not a new degree program; however, the program will integrate doctoral programs from different disciplines, uniting the graduate students under the umbrella of biophotonics research.

“We’re not offering a new degree program,” Venugopalan said. “People will still enroll in their own department and get a doctorate degree in their own [discipline]..

“Under the program, if students commit to being BEST IGERT Fellows they will be required to take a series of coursework and in return will get some resources to support their graduate education.”

The intentions of the program are to allow students to take courses specific to biophotonics that would take the place of general elective requirements that they would fulfill either way. The program also will maintain the same average length of a doctral program — five years in length, no longer than a normal doctoral degree.

The participating faculty members are from various different departments across campus, and are mainly focused in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) domain. These faculty members, including professors Ron Frostig and Eric Potma, are known for their extensive research contributions to the scientific community in their perspective fields.

Due to the fact that a significant portion of the $3 million funding from the NSF is allotted toward students’ educations, the funding will allow these professors involved with the biophotonics program to utilize even more of their separate grants towards their own research.

“So from our perspective, this grant gives us two years of funding from the NSF that would not come out of our normal research budget,” Venugopalan said. “I think it will enable us to do even more research with the same dollars we already get from our research grants.”

But more importantly, Venugopalan is excited about the opportunities and relationships that this program will allow students and professors across campus to create.

“I think it will build a community and stimulate new ideas through new interactions amongst students and faculty that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise,” he said.

And with the main priority being interdisciplinary interactions amongst the students, learning across different disciplines, this new doctoral program focuses more on the individuals — putting students at the forefront.

“This program is not only about technology development; I want to make that clear,” Venugopalan said. “They should have a working-understanding, although many do not, of the technology and how it is relevant to their biological systems, but we are not trying to limit this only to people who want to develop new technology.

“There will be people who will use existing technology to make important biological discoveries, and there will be other people who will be developing new technology — and there will be some that will do both.”