The Labs That Go Boom: The Beckman Laser Institute and Medical Clinic Deploys Photon Torpedoes

Tiny, super-powerful beams test the toughness of living cells

This month, as part of our special on the future of education, PopSci_ presents 10 labs where students do serious research (and career training) by blowing stuff up._

Lab: Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California at Irvine
Career: Optics engineer, medical-device engineer

The lasers in Vasan Venugopalan’s UC Irvine lab—eight in all—are a million times more powerful than TNT, and their beams are only one tenth the width of a human hair. Students use them to test the limits of living cells.

When tissues suffer a shot from a laser, Venugopalan explains, “there’s like a nuclear blast. You have these rings, the fallout zones.”

Cells at the blast site die immediately. Cells one ring away die slowly. And cells farther away are changed only temporarily. Venugopalan’s students study the post-blast response of those injured cells to develop new medical and surgical techniques. For instance, they are researching how neurons respond to injury—work that may some day lead to a better treatment for spinal cord injuries. Other students study the effects of lasers on cellular permeability. The shock waves from a blast create tiny but healable holes in the membranes of cells outside the central target area, potentially indicating a new mechanism for direct drug delivery.