A new discipline that combines the realms of biological and photonic studies, biophotonics, shows great potential for rewarding developments in medical diagnosis and treatment, visual applications, and data analysis.
And sometimes, it also rewards money.
UB announced Tuesday that it has received a $2.7 million dollar grant from the Natural Science Foundation to establish the nation's first comprehensive, multidisciplinary training program for biophotonic scientists. The grant will cover a five-year period and result in a new breed of scientist, one trained to conduct research in the fields of biology, photonic and electronic systems.
"This prestigious grant - the second IGERT (Intergrative Graduate Education, Research and Training) grant for the university - promotes UB as a major player among American research universities," said UB Provost Elizabeth Capaldi. "It places us among the elite in this field. I'm proud and thrilled."
"We will be educating the first wave of scientists in this area," Capaldi added.
Alexander Cartwright, Ph.D., an associate professor of electrical engineering at UB, was the principal initiator of the grant. "Many of the most challenging problems in science and medicine could be solved if the scientists working on them spoke the same language," he said.
The "language" barrier Cartwright referred to results from scientists' lack of ability to articulate the information of separate intellectual disciplines. The grant will change that, Cartwright said, by enabling the field to "see input from the fields of chemistry, chemical engineering, electrical engineering, and even input from the College of Arts and Sciences."
Over 300 proposals were submitted to the NSF. Receipt of the grant recognizes the work of the university's Institute for Lasers, Photonics and Biophotonics.
This is UB's second IGERT grant, which places the university into a select group. Fewer than 20 universities in the nation have been given more than one such award, among them top schools such as Harvard, Yale and the University of Berkley. UB's first IGERT grant, awarded in 1998, was used to develop the nation's first multi-disciplinary doctoral program in geographic information.
The IGERT program aims to immerse doctoral students in multiple intellectual disciplines so that upon graduation a student's ability to work within different fields will be a hot property in the research industry.
During the academic year, grant funds will pay tuition and provide a stipend of $18,000 to 18 IGERT fellows - six each from the College of Arts and Sciences departments of physics, chemistry and biology; the schools of Engineering and Applied Sciences; and the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. The students' home departments will award degrees after their standard requirements, as well as the biophotonic requirements, are completed.
Cartwright added that the combination of the elite-level research and the high-end stipends will attract "some of the best young scientific minds, whether they be foreign or domestic."
Following a press conference Tuesday, some interdisciplinary studies students gave a demonstration of their technology at work.
Michael Pan, a second-year graduate student in the field of electrical engineering, showed the potential of nanotechnology, typically encountered in chemistry, when applied to his program.
"We could potentially make a screen the thickness of a poster, something you could watch TV on," said Pan. "It would also be flexible. This clearly has enormous potential for profit ... and the new interdisciplinary school will allow us to optimize the lifespan of this nanotechnology, but also the voltage flowing through it."
Christopher Friend, a graduate student of chemistry, demonstrated a possible use of nanophosphers and infrared light for medical research.
The application would allow doctors to locate a disease like cancer when it is only a molecular signature in the victim's cells, long before the appearance of physical tumors.
"Not only can it be used to diagnose, but it can also be used for treatments," Friend said. "HPP is an agent used to treat cancer. By sending this infrared into the body, it will excite the HPP and possibly kill the cancer."
IGERT fellows will conduct research on a broad range of materials, each in the hope of discovering new biophotonic applications. Development will focus on biosensors, which combine nanotechnology and laser technology, for diagnosis and treatment of cancer and other light-activated therapies, and the analysis of the interaction of light with biological materials.
Both the Center for Advanced Photonic and Electronic Materials and the Center for Computational Research will cooperate in the IGERT grant.
IGERT students will participate internships at private sector and government industries, including Pixel Physics in Rochester, which designs photonic systems; Coherent, a leading supplier of lasers; the Air Force research laboratory; and the Center for Imaging Science at the Rochester Institute of Technology.