November 13, 2018
By Noah Pflueger-Peters
Six UC Davis Ph.D. students from the Biomedical Engineering Graduate Group traveled to Jena, Germany this September for a weeklong summer school on clinical biophotonics. These students attended lectures, visited cutting-edge research labs and presented their research to their German peers and leading experts in the field while immersing themselves in German culture.
The summer school is the first major event of the Jena-Davis Alliance of Excellence in Biophotonics (JEDIS), a three-year joint program between UC Davis biomedical engineering professor Laura Marcu and Juergen Popp of the Leibniz Institute of Photonic Technology (IHPT) in Jena, Germany. The alliance brings together the clinical expertise of UC Davis and the technological expertise of IPHT to share resources and promote the development of new photonic devices and applications.
“This is a genuine collaboration,” said Marcu Lab member Brent Weyers. “Not only do we exchange ideas, but we actually exchange people in the lab group now and then to capitalize on expertise from both institutions.”
Biophotonics is the study of optical interactions in biological tissue. These interactions can tell researchers and doctors about the size, depth and composition of materials, which can be used to detect abnormalities such as cancer and other diseases. Clinical biophotonics has great potential to enable early cancer detection and guide surgeons in effectively and efficiently removing tumors. The alliance hopes to use each institution’s strengths to train students at the intersection of photonics and biomedical applications to create better devices to help patients.
“Jena is such an optics hub,” said Ph.D. student Oybek Kholiqov, who decided to apply his B.S. in optical science and engineering to biomedical needs. “There’s a limited number of us doing optics and biophotonics research [at UC Davis], but you go there and half of the people are in the optics industry. That was very special to me.”
During the summer school, students attended daily presentations that introduced leading optical technologies, ground-breaking discoveries in fiber optic design and fabrication, fluorescence microscopy and applications of biophotonics, including observing individual brain cells at work and evaluating gastrointestinal diseases. The students also presented their own research through lectures, poster sessions and pitches, where they had the opportunity to network and receive feedback from their peers and experts in the field.
“I loved the opportunity to explore how biophotonics research is being conducted at a foreign institution,” said Brent Weyers. “It gave me new perspectives and insight on the latest clinical research and provided me with a rich network to brainstorm and discuss concepts with.”
The students also got to see biophotonics help a patient firsthand. They visited the university hospital in Jena dressed in full scrubs and watched a surgery in action, talking with the surgeons about this technology.
“It was interesting for me to see it actually being used on patients,” said Ph.D. student Amy Becker, who works at the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. “Everyone’s working towards clinical [applications], but I don’t know how many people get to see it.”
The group also had plenty of time for sightseeing and experiencing German culture. They took a train ride to nearby Weimar, a center of the German Enlightenment, visited the 11th Century Wartburg castle in Eisenach and were treated to an exclusive show at Jena’s Carl Zeiss Planetarium, the world’s oldest operating planetarium.
In 2019, it will be Davis’ turn to host the summer school, and preparations have already begun. Professor Marcu hopes to build on the success of the alliance’s first year of collaboration and continue to combine each institution’s strengths to advance the field of biophotonics.
“Although we are applying different techniques, we can help each other by learning from each other,” said Saif Mondol, a visiting researcher from Jena working in the Marcu lab. “Together, we can help each other solve problems and use science to help patients.