The art and science of lasers

Two La Trobe University PhD students and molecular imaging researchers are exploring the many uses of lasers in art and science.

What do Chris Levine's art and La Trobe University researchers have in common? Lasers!

The renowned UK artist's latest work Molecule of Light is part of The Light in Winter festival at Melbourne's Federation Square.

An accompanying mini-documentary titled This is Laser (see below) features La Trobe PhD students and molecular imaging researchers Hannah Coughlan and Nicholas Anthony. The documentary describes the many uses of lasers in art and science.

Hannah uses powerful free-electron lasers to study the structure of proteins. There are only two such lasers in the world, in America and in Japan. Each is over three kilometres long and 10 000 times brighter than the sun.

'It's very collaborative work, very international. We work with so many different people from everywhere. They are building a third free-electron laser in Germany and we are working with those people as well,' says Hannah.

Hannah's research is focused on immunology. Finding the structure of a protein responsible for an autoimmune disease could help fight the disease itself. For example, the discovery of the structure of insulin had a major impact on the fight against diabetes.

Nicholas uses different, much smaller lasers, in his work. Over eight months, his team at La Trobe built an instrument that focuses laser light to image materials and biological samples.

'We had an expanded beam that we focused onto the sample and it allowed us to capture a diffraction pattern. It gives you a way of seeing not only really small things, but it also gives you a lot more information about what these things actually are ...it can tell you what they are composed of,' says Nicholas.

Nicholas uses the instrument to see the difference between healthy and malaria infected red blood cells. He is also looking at how stress affects structures, with the intent of looking at how stress affects red blood cells in human bodies.

In the documentary, artist Chris Levine says he feels fortunate to be working with laser at this point in time because it has been through 'quite a quantum leap in development'. Hannah and Nicholas agree.

'Because they are so new, people haven't gotten their heads around everything we can do with them yet, we are still discovering' says Nicholas.

Find out more about research degrees at La Trobe.

Hannah Coughlan Hannah Coughlan

Hannah Coughlan completed a Bachelor of Science (Honours) and a Master of Nanotechnology at La Trobe University.

She is currently completing a PhD in Bragg Coherent Diffractive Imaging of protein crystals with La Trobe University and the CSIRO. She is studying the strain in protein crystals and methods to characterise the strain.

Find out more about Hannah's experience as a La Trobe student.

Nicolas AnthonyNicholas Anthony

Nicholas Anthony completed a Bachelor of Science (Honours) and a Master of Nanotechnology at La Trobe University.

He is currently completing a PhD in physics with La Trobe University and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Advanced Molecular Imaging. His research is focused on the development and use of a new microscope that uses focused laser light to image materials and biological samples to high spatial resolution. This research has applications in live cell imaging and stress/strain measurements.

Image: Molecule of light by Chris Levine.

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