Optics and opportunity: Researchers at DSU beaming about new center

 

DOVER — One might describe the mood of Delaware State University researchers as excited — like an electron absorbing a photon.

For those with limited science knowledge, all of the talk about lasers and nanotechnology at the new Optical Science Center for Applied Research (OSCAR) can be overwhelming.

The faculty and students, however, are already immersed in studies that could make significant advancements in medicine, military technology and more.

“We want this facility to serve as a center of growth for optics research not only in this region, Delaware and Kent County but the U.S. and all over the world,” said Dr. Mohammad A. Khan, a DSU physics and engineering professor.

“We are trying to get away from the way people traditionally do research. We are integrating research and student education leading to a skilled workforce.”

The newly opened OSCAR building will be dedicated Friday in a special ceremony, followed by a gala.

The $28.8 million mirrored building, which is visible from U.S. 13 and stands in great contrast to the campus’ brick buildings, is now home to 19 faculty members, two research and eight administrative staff members, 48 undergraduate students and 18 graduate students of the optics program.

OSCAR’s faculty, students, scientists and visitors are welcomed by white walls and floors after entering the prism with a central staircase surrounded by angled mirrors.

“I guess you can say the architect didn’t spare any creativity designing this building,” said Carlos Holmes, DSU director of public relations said.

The first floor of the three-story facility features a small conference room, offices and shared-use labs. But it is best noted for its wide array of microscopes — not the ordinary kind you would find in a science classroom. OSCAR’s labs feature microscopes that can see particles on the nano-level. Items on a nano-scale are approximately the size of one one-thousandth of a human hair.

“We can do research here on an atomic level but if we want to go even smaller, we have our electron-scanning microscope that can see even more,” said Dr. Wafa Amir, director of imaging. “We can research chemistry, biology, material studies and even things that require multiple departments.”

Dr. Amir uses the microscopes primarily for biological testing and has microscopes that project light from the top or bottom. The samples can be viewed trough a typical viewfinder but DSU also has a 3-D imaging computer which can interpret the microscopes’ findings and produce a three-dimensional image.

“Everything down here is commercial and to an extent is only developed to answer a single question, which can be a drawback, so we need to engineer new equipment that allows us to answer questions that haven’t been asked before,” Dr. Amir said. “What we have here is very good but not always exactly what we need to reach the end.”

Illuminating research

On the third floor, DSU’s researchers already are working with unique equipment.

Harry Burton, an optics doctoral student working under Dr. Thomas Planchon, is trying to solve some problems Dr. Amir faces while working with biological matter on the first floor using a spacial light modulator.

“Essentially we want to develop this laser because it’s going to have applications in biology where we want to image things that are very small,” he said. “We are trying to get a beam that will illuminate the whole sample without killing it. The problem now is that existing beams will kill the sample if it remains on them too long. If we want to preserve the sample we need something that will distribute the beam along the entire area while keeping the same high level of detail.”

Keeping samples alive will help with Dr. Amir’s Alzheimer’s research. She typically uses caenorhabditis elegans (a worm commonly used for neurological research usually measuring only about one millimeter in length), also known as c. elegans, but has to use dead samples not only because live ones are in motion but also due to microscope exposure.

Just next door to Mr. Burton’s biophotonic imaging project, Dr. Hacene Boukari’s doctoral student Elton Jhela, is viewing nanoparticles and tracking their movements in an effort to improve research on sickle-cell disease.

“Cells aren’t fluid, they are mixed in with a lot of particles that make their environment crowded, so we try to mimic that using polymers,” he explained.

Mr. Jhela said in the lab, they toy with the consistency of the environment and how “crowded” it is to compare how cells navigate in different environments. The experiments may produce results to help medical researchers find cures or more effective medicine for sickle-cell.

The most notable project of the DSU optics program is also housed on the third floor in a lab belonging to Dr. Noureddine Melikechi, the founder of the optics department.

Life on Mars

In his laboratory, lunar and Martian conditions can be simulated in a vacuum chamber to test equipment used on the Mars rover, Curiosity.

The vacuum chamber is used to test short pulse lasers similar to the one Curiosity is equipped with that was developed at DSU. The “ChemCam” focuses a laser on rock surfaces for only a fraction of a second to determine its composition.

Tests run in the lab are continuing to improve the accuracy of composition detection and the research will likely be included in future exploratory space missions on other equipment like Curiosity.

The work has already earned Dr. Melikechi and doctoral student Alissa Mezzacappa the Group Achievement Award — a high honor from NASA.

“The Mars rover is what has put DSU on the map,” said Ms. Mezzacappa. “It has opened a door to allow DSU to form relations internationally.

“We’ve hosted international scientists to discuss findings and what the future holds.”

The Mars rover work has also attracted students and professors to DSU from all over the U.S. and the world including Russia, France, India and Serbia.

“Even though what we do here is very specific, it enhances all the research that goes on in this facility,” she said.

New findings

Down one floor, researchers are working on a handful of projects that could next head to the Department of Defense to improve military operations. One project includes developing a camera that can see through smoke, cloud cover, glass and water and detect the type of material being viewed. Another is enhancing the current state of individual GPS locators which could improve isolated military missions or even space missions.

“This is a lab for scientists who hopefully will end up with Nobel Prizes in about 10 years,” Dr. Khan joked in his lab.

He and his team are developing portable greenhouse gas sensors that can be used on farmland, for example, to study the atmosphere.

“The idea is to make low-power, low energy-consumption light wave sensors,” he said. “So we actually start by working in the lab then testing everything out in the field.”

The findings could end up influencing future policy regarding emissions. Dr. Khan hopes to test his equipment near gas drilling sites to find leaks.

He expects that some of the findings may discover cancer-causing gases, but as an engineer, he will need to work with biologists to interpret the data; just another example of how most projects at OSCAR require a multidisciplinary approach and produce results than benefit more than one area of research.

It may seem like developing new equipment and technology is hard work, and it is, especially since inventions and discoveries made at OSCAR don’t come with manuals or system diagnostics.

“Since everything is new, it’s up to the scientists and students to develop the software to actually use and apply the new technology,” Dr. Khan said.

So not only are the scientists and students well versed in optics, they are also experts in code, creating their own software for every new project undertaken in the new facility.

Since all research and experiments conducted at OSCAR are done on such a small scale and require exact measurements and movements, all three floors of laboratories are positioned on the same wall of the three-sided building.

The wall has been stabilized to nearly eliminate vibrations caused by military planes, NASCAR races and the nearby highway. The wall also flexes so it absorbs vibrations instead of rattling the walls and floor.

The researchers have already noticed an improvement over what they experienced in the Luna Mishoe Science Center where the optics program started in 1998 under Dr. Melikechi’s leadership.

Incubators

The technology and resources available will not just benefit the optics program. They may also benefit companies and organizations nationwide.

First floor lab space known as “incubator labs,” will be available for rent.

“The equipment is very expensive, as is expertise, and many businesses can’t afford it. So they will now have the opportunity to work with us to meet their needs,” Dr. Melikechi said in March.

Dr. Khan said the space could also be rented by DSU optics graduates who want to start their own company.

“This is a great opportunity for a student who has graduated who may want to become a CEO for their start-up company,” he said.

OSCAR is only half of a planned two-structure facility designed by Richard and Bauer. Becker Morgan, of Dover, served as consultants with civil engineering and local architectural services.

The facility is being constructed as two buildings in separate phases because raising the necessary funding to make the facility a single structure possibly could have delayed construction for years.

Phase I was funded in part by a $10 million grant from the state of Delaware and other smaller grants from organizations like the National Science Foundation, NASA and the National Institute of Health.

Phase II of OSCAR, a $31 million facility of similar appearance to Phase I, will be 32,000 square feet and have classrooms, additional laboratories and a 150-seat auditorium. The buildings will be positioned side by side and connected by a corridor.

“The cutting edge research here attracts private industry and will contribute to the economic development of the region,” said Matthew Bobrowsky, an astrophysicist on the DSU staff.

Staff writer Ashton Brown can be reached at abrown@newszap.com or 741-8272. Follow @AshtonReports on Twitter.

Reach staff writer Ashton Brown at abrown@newszap.com. Follow @AshtonReports on Twitter.

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