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Taking a Deep Dive into the World of Biophotonics

Gavrielle presents her research in Ven
SPIE Student Member Gavrielle Untracht is pursuing her PhD at The University of Western Australia. She had the chance to participate in the 9th International Graduate Summer School in Biophotonics this past June on the island of Ven between Sweden and Denmark.

At the school, sponsored by SPIE, invited experts from around the globe gave extended presentations on topics like tissue optics, strategies for cancer treatment using lasers, and entrepreneurship in photonics. Attendees also had the opportunity to present their current research projects, results, or ideas. Gavrielle shares her experiences of the summer school with this community in the following guest blog post.

I recently returned from a week of great discussions and beautiful weather at the 9th Biophotonics Summer School on the Isle of Ven, Sweden. This experience, made possible (in part) by SPIE, was an invaluable opportunity for networking and a deep dive into the world of biophotonics that I would highly recommend to any student pursuing a career in biophotonics or optics in general. It was a great vacation from my regular PhD duties to do one of my favorite things – learn about optics!

SPIE Fellows Stefan Andersson-Engels, currently of the Irish Photonic Integration Center (IPIC), and Peter Andersen with DTU Health Tech, started the school in 2003 to fill a gap in photonics education since no comprehensive course in biophotonics was available. They invited experts in 10 topics to lecture a small group of students with the goal of facilitating education and in-depth discussions on topics relevant to the field. As (arguably) the birthplace of modern science, the Isle of Ven makes a perfect backdrop: Tycho Brahe had his observatory there in the 16th century! He’s notably the first astronomer to use empirical measurements to support his research.

During my PhD, I have spent time at two universities: The University of Western Australia and the University of Surrey. Still, I always find it challenging to find new technical courses in my field. The in-depth lectures at Summer School allowed me to bolster my technical background on many different topics ranging from the physics of supercontinuum laser sources to gas spectroscopy for nondestructive testing of food. The lecturers always made themselves available for additional details or more in-depth discussion on any of the topics they addressed. Even if some material isn’t new, there’s nothing like going back to the basics to help you work through any challenges in your research. Even discussing things you know, but with new people and in a new place can help you see things from a different perspective.

Some of the topics were very relevant to my research, such as lectures on OCT by Wolfgang Drexler of the Medical University of Vienna, although some of my favorite lectures focused on new topics that I might not have otherwise investigated. A good example is lectures on combining optics with x-rays by Brian Pogue of the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth. Thinking about these new topics allowed me to form a better picture of where my work fits in the field and how I could broaden my research horizons.

However, some of the best experiences I got at the Summer School were during mealtimes. (And not just because of the delicious food!) Given the small group size and geographical isolation, I had the opportunity to interact with everyone there, and mealtimes were some of the best opportunities for networking. Now I have other people to talk to when I go to a big conference like SPIE Photonics West!

One of the most valuable parts of the Summer School was having the opportunity to interact with lecturers in both an academic and non-academic way. It was great to be able to discuss my wild ideas with Kishan Dholakia from the University of St. Andrews over dinner, and I’ll never forget playing trivia with Wolfgang Drexler and Melissa Skala from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. These types of interactions help break down the barrier between students and lecturers and facilitate better discussion. Now, I’ll be less ‘star struck’ when I meet a professor whose papers I’ve been reading for years and will have the confidence to go up and talk to them. And who knows – maybe one of the lecturers will be my future boss! (Note: I will be looking for a post-doc in about two years *wink*)

Incidentally, Brian Pogue, is also the editor of the SPIE Journal for Biomedical Optics. Every two years JBO puts out a special issue for the Summer School which features tutorials written by some of the lecturers and research papers from summer school attendees. Keep an eye out for this year’s issue to see some of the things we’ve been talking about!

Summer School attendees listen to a lecture by Brian Pogue

Gavrielle (second from left) with fellow Summer School attendees


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