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Biomedical Engineering

Light for Life

Understanding the functions of the human body with the wave of a wand has been a fantasy of science fiction writers for decades. Optical technologies are closing in on this fantasy by providing specific information on tissue structure and function. The Vanderbilt Biomedical Photonics Laboratory explores three main areas of research: optical diagnostics, optical therapeutics and noninvasive optical imaging. The biomedical photonics labs are housed in a newly renovated 6,300-square-foot, state-of-the-art research space in the W.M. Keck Foundation Free Electron Laser Center. The expanded space houses numerous lasers, wet lab space, cell culture facilities, dedicated instruments for optical spectroscopy and imaging and an instrumentation design lab.

Light for Life

Anita Mahadevan-Jansen Anita Mahadevan-Jansen

Orrin H. Ingram Chair in Engineering
Professor of Biomedical Engineering
Professor of Neurosurgery

My father died of brain cancer when I was 12 years old. He was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, the most lethal form of brain cancer, six years earlier and had surgery to remove the tumor. He lived six years and one week from the date of his surgery. You can tell this to neurosurgeons today and they will tell you a six-year survival is still close to a record, even today. My father died in 1980 in India when there was just one CT scanner in the entire country. Despite tremendous technological developments since then, none of them have done much to improve the survival rate of patients with brain cancer. I decided early on I was going to help. My love for medicine and physics drew me to b

Anita Mahadevan-Jansen

iomedical engineering for my career. However, biomedical engineering didn't exist as a major in India then, so I came to the United States to get my Ph.D.

Biomedical engineering allows me to combine my strengths in technology development with my love for medicine. Whether I am looking for a method to screen for skin cancer without taking a biopsy or devising a way to tell surgeons where a tumor ends and normal begins so they can remove the cancer completely in a single surgery, I use light to solve such problems. I build instruments that can detect cancers early, using properties of light that behave differently in normal compared to cancerous tissues. These instruments are like Star Trek's "tricorder," a handheld device that can scan a suspicious area with light and indicate whether it is cancer. These are just examples of some of my ongoing projects as part of the biomedical photonics laboratories.


Duco Jansen E. Duco Jansen

Associate Dean for Graduate Studies
Professor of Biomedical Engineering
Professor of Neurosurgery

Careers often happen because of chance encounters and a few influential teachers. I grew up in a family full of teachers, so as a kid the one thing I knew I did not want to do was teach. In high school in a small town in the eastern part of the Netherlands, the same school where my dad was the principal, my interest in the biomedical field was largely spurred by my teachers in biology and chemistry. They challenged me to think and push myself beyond my comfort zone. As a result, I decided to study medical biology and later—due to my research interests in lasers and optics—pursue my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering.

As an optics and laser person, I work in an area known as biomedical photonics. Simply put, we try to solve all sorts of problems in medicine and in the biomedical sciences using lasers, light and optical technologies. Light is truly amazing. We can cook, heat, burn, zap, drill, tear and evaporate tissue using light with astounding precision; we can even do surgery on single cells. On the other hand, we can also change light with tissue and use the information from how the light is changed to determine if it is normal or tumor tissue.

E. Duco Jansen

My research program focuses on understanding the interactions between light and tissue. Presently, most of the work in my lab is aimed at building so-called optical-neural interfaces. We use light, delivered through optical fibers, to communicate with neurons in the human body. Using this approach, we can better control prosthetic devices, build things like cochlear implants to help patients "hear light" or develop a laser-based pacemaker. We're developing devices with small, implantable lasers to translate our discoveries from the lab to the clinic. We are exploring new applications, and we're working on the underlying scientific questions of how this actually works. On a daily basis, I collaborate with other engineers, physicists, medical doctors, biologists, neuroscientists, professionals and students at all levels. That last part is perhaps the most rewarding part because, after all, I am a teacher.


Melissa Skala Melissa Skala

Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering

At some point, everybody wonders how rainbows happen. I was no different, and my curiosity about light only grew from there. I wanted to know how light worked, how it interacted with its environment and what it can tell us about ourselves. In eighth grade while other kids were making volcano models, I was using polarized light to look at structural stresses in model bridges. As an undergraduate in physics at Washington State University, I spent a summer in Professor Mark Kuzyk's optics lab and was fortunate to spend one year studying abroad in Wales, where I developed an appreciation for philanthropy and helping those who are less fortunate. As graduation neared, I began looking at grad schools that could combine my interest in physics with the opportunity to help people.

Melissa SkalaI found a biomedical engineering lab at the University of Wisconsin doing just that—using light to improve human health. Light-tissue interactions can provide a wealth of information on the function of the human body, including metabolism, oxygenation and structure. This information can be used to determine if a cancer is developing, what treatment would best suit a particular tumor and whether a tumor is responding to therapy.

I completed my Ph.D. at Duke University in 2007, and after a short stint as a post-doc, I landed my dream job at Vanderbilt University. My research focuses on harnessing the power of light to improve the care of cancer patients. Vanderbilt is an ideal place to study light and cancer because of its strong optics and imaging cores and collaborators in the world-class Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. Light continues to reveal new secrets every day, and I am proud to be a part of this research and make a positive impact on human health.