Team of 9 Professors Will Get $650k Laser System

MERCED- Nine professors from the University of California, Merced, have teamed up to win a $650,000 grant from the National Science Foundation that will fund a high-tech, flexible laser system that can be custom-configured to serve all their varying avenues of research.

"Instrumentation grants such as this one from NSF are vital for the growth of our research programs," said Dean Maria Pallavicini of the School of Natural Sciences."We are very proud of the interdisciplinary teamwork and innovative scientific ideas these nine professors put together in their proposal to bring such an advanced, versatile laser system to UC Merced."

The equipment comprises a collection of four lasers as well as detection and imaging components that can be set up for different research projects in fields like physics, chemistry, nanoscienceand biophysics.

"It's a very sophisticated system, but considering its capacity, surprisingly simple to operate," said Professor Sayantani Ghosh,who led the grant-writing team. "It's one of the most versatile and useful systems available. There is tremendous interest within the science and engineering communities to exploit this technology, but the cost of the laser source alone is about $450,000. That's typically too much for one new professor to fund, so we worked together to achieve a common goal."

The team of professors includes the following faculty members from UC Merced (alphabetically):

  • Sayantani Ghosh,who plans to use the equipment for quantum physics studies in semiconductors and insulators
  • Ajay Gopinathan,who is preparing to examine how the protein actin behaves during phagocytosis (how cells absorb their food)
  • Boaz Ilan,an applied mathematician, who intends to study how pulsed light travels through new types of optical fibers
  • David F. Kelley,planning to study organic-semiconductor liquid crystal composites
  • Anne Myers Kelley,who plans to use the equipment for experiments with organic chromophores (the parts of molecules responsible for color)
  • Michelle Khine, a bioengineer who plans to collaborate with Gopinathan on the actin study
  • Jennifer Lu,a materials engineer planning to use the laser system to study carbon nanotubes
  • Jay Sharping,who will collaborate with Ilan on optics research
  • Tao Ye,who will work on problems related to developing molecular-scale devices

UC Merced anticipates the new equipment will be a draw for new faculty members in the next few years.

"When people see that we have this system available, they will recognize it's a huge resource," Ghosh explained. "If you work with a laser system, it's likely this one will be able to accomplish the kind of tasks you need to do."

The system will also directly benefit students. A nanotechnology minor is planned to launch in the Fall 2009 semester, and Ghosh and Lu are planning to schedule two weeks each semester for nanotechnology students to explore the capabilities of the laser system. Upper-division physics students may also use the equipment as part of their coursework starting in Spring 2009. Aside from that, undergraduates involved in research, particularly with Ghosh, Lu, Sharping and Khine, will receive training at par with graduate students to learn to operate it.

"They can get that hands-on experience on an expensive and intricate system, something that's very hard to come by at other universities," Ghosh said. "Everybody knows about laser pointers and weapons in movies, but it's great for science students to realize that we use lasers to investigate fundamental scientific processes, sometimes on energy and time scales that almost no other tool can access."

The new system has already been assigned space in the Science and Engineering Building at UC Merced. The School of Natural Sciences will help support maintenance of the system for its first few years. Ghosh said she anticipates getting started on ordering and setting up the system as soon as funding begins in September.

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