Nanobiophotonics School at Beckman a Success

A summer school held in June at the Beckman Institute to learn about and explore current topics in the emerging field of nanobiophotonics was a big success, organizers said.

When the students start a Facebook page in honor of your summer school class, you know the class was a success.

The 2009 Nanobiophotonics Summer School held at the Beckman Institute June 1-12 was such a success, co-organizers Gabriel Popescu and Nahil Sobh said, that students were asking if there would be a second school next summer.

“The response was overwhelmingly positive,” Popescu said. “We learned what the students enjoyed the most and also gathered some feedback for next time when we will know what to improve.”

“They really liked it and made many new friendships,” Sobh added. “They established their own social network on Facebook called Nanobiophotonics Summer School 2009. The students asked ‘will you have it next year?’”

That will depend on whether a grant proposal is successful but, based on interest and feedback regarding the first Nanobiophotonics Summer School, continued funding looks like a good possibility. Popescu said there were 120 applicants for 50 slots in the school, including applicants from 16 universities in seven different countries.

The school was sponsored by the Network for Computational Nanotechnology (NCN), which is funded by the National Science Foundation. Sobh is a lead scientist at Beckman and the site-lead of NCN at the University of Illinois, which also operates the nanoHub, a Web-based resource for research, education and collaboration in nanotechnology. Popescu is a faculty member in the Bioimaging Science and Technology (BST) group at Beckman.

The school grew out of a discussion between Popescu and Sobh, with Beckman faculty member Umberto Ravaioli leading the way in garnering funding for the session, and fellow Institute faculty members Steve Boppart and Rohit Bhargava also serving as a co-organizers. In addition, Beckman researchers Scott Carney, Nicholas Fang, Brian Cunningham, and Marina Marjanovic gave talks during the school.

As evidence of the interdisciplinary and comprehensive nature of the school, Kimani Toussaint of Mechanical Science and Engineering and Logan Liu of ECE also served as co-organizers. In addition, the school included medical and business perspectives. It featured talks from two local physicians: Dr. Samir Sayegh, eye surgeon and Medical Director of the Eye Center in Champaign, and Dr. Krishna Tangella, pathologist and medical director of Christie Clinic Laboratory. Donald Barnhart, a scientist with the iCyt company located in the Illinois Research Park, discussed optical design using the Optica software he developed.

Popescu said Beckman was a natural fit as a host site for the school.

“Beckman symbolizes interdisciplinary research on campus and this school was indeed highly interdisciplinary,” he said. “It was biology, nanotechnology and optics. We had students from various departments and lecturers from campus and outside. ”

The school also served as an opportunity to highlight the strengths found at Beckman and Illinois in the rapidly emerging area of nanobiophotonics, which combines photonics, nanoscale technology, biology, and biomedical science. Popescu said one of the main benefits of having the school here was “to establish ourselves as one of the key leaders in the area of nanobiophotonics. We definitely have the right people and this school just adds to our current efforts.”

The response was overwhelmingly positive.
– Beckman faculty member Gabriel Popescu on the nanobiophotonics school held at the Institute this summer.

Popescu said the school brings positives such as aiding in recruiting faculty and graduate students to campus and to Beckman.

“Having so many students from outside will help spread the word,” he said. “They were blown away by our campus. They thoroughly enjoyed touring several of the cutting edge labs in Beckman and the Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory (MNTL). We showed them the Microscopy Suite and I think that was the most impressive thing that they saw. What we have here is unique. They see that firsthand and I’m sure they are going to tell everybody about it.”

Popescu added that the attendees were also excited about being welcomed to the school and campus by Beckman Institute Director Tamer Başar, Executive Associate Dean of Engineering Michael Bragg, and Director of MNTL, Rashid Bashir.

Sobh said the Network for Computational Nanotechnology supports nano-bio and nano-medicine research and because of the faculty and facilities here, it made sense for NCN at Illinois to sponsor this school in the area of nanobiophotonics. “This is one of the topics that is a strength here, so it was very natural,” Sobh said.

“Photonics is a huge strength on our campus,” Popescu added. “If you look at only my department of ECE (Electrical and Computer Engineering), you will find a large group of world leaders in photonics that has been impacting the field in dramatic ways.”

Most of the funding came from NCN but the Materials Computation Center on campus also contributed funds.

Most of the attendees at the school were graduate students. The fist week featured talks on some of the basics of the field, such as principles of optics and general biology, while the second week was more of a conference with a focus on current research topics.

Popescu said that the students developed camaraderie during the two weeks and that both the students and faculty were excited about continuing the school in the future.

“It generated a lot of enthusiasm, both from the students and from us,” he said.