Laser harp combines PhD student’s love of optics and music

Mayna Nguyễn, a biomedical engineering PhD student, combines her love of optics and music in a laser harp she built and plays.

Ph.D. student Mayna Nguyen recently combined a longtime hobby with her study of biomedical optics with dazzling results: a playable laser harp that embodies both her love for the instrument and her research into photonics.

“I was looking for different papers that incorporated the use of lasers within the field of biomedical optics and how that could potentially be intertwined with something fun like music and came across a laser harp,” Nguyen said.

The second-year student first brought the idea to her faculty mentors, biomedical engineering professors E. Duco Jansen and Anita Mahadevan-Jansen. Jansen, an avid amateur musician, said he was very excited when Nguyen brought up the idea.

“In one of our research meetings she mentioned that she had come across this thing called a laser harp. I had heard of it, and so I jokingly said, ‘You should build one,’” he continued. “Next thing you know she was at home for a weekend and did just that, with her dad building the frame and her incorporating the lasers, the sensors, putting the control systems together and programming. And it worked.”

Nguyen had learned to play the traditional version of the instrument through her participation in orchestra in middle and high school. She tapped into that experience when she was thinking through how to combine her love for music with her academic research.

“Vanderbilt provided the opportunity to combine so much of my background into one project,” Nguyen said. “My harp background, my engineering degree and my current research focus all came together to accomplish this fun build.”

Beams of light replace strings in the laser harp, which Mayna Nguyen hopes to use to help get young students interested in STEM fields.

Laser harps have been made most famous by French musician Jean Michel Jarre. However, building one from scratch is not an easy task. And Nguyen quickly learned that it was challenging to play her stringless creation as well. Nevertheless, as in her research, she found success and hopes to use this project to bring awareness and convey excitement for science and engineering to young students pursuing STEM fields.

Nguyen’s research is exploring the stimulation of neurons using light, including lasers.

“The idea is to use laser light to stimulate or inhibit neurons for neuromodulation. We’re exploring this as a possible alternative to electrical stimulation as an interface with the neural system,” Nguyen said.

She is currently involved with the Biomedical Engineering Graduate Student Association and the International Society for Optics and Photonics Student Chapter assisting with STEM outreach in the Nashville area.

“Many engineers and scientists are musically inclined, and I really love it when I see students who are able to combine their academic research with their musical talents,” Jansen said.

By: Celeste Malone