Bridgewater State University students are harnessing the power of lasers and, in the process, shining a light on their university.
A team of undergraduates has built a device that uses lasers to trap and manipulate microscopic items such as DNA molecules. The device, known as optical tweezers, allows students to research how cancer drugs interact with single molecules of DNA, work that could lead to the development of better medications to combat the disease.
And, a group of BSU students is believed to be the first undergraduates ever to build dual-beam optical tweezers, according to Dr. Thaya Paramanathan, an assistant professor of physics. Their creation is one of only 15 to 20 optical tweezers used for biological research in the country.
“It’s a huge thing to have something like this here at BSU,” Paramanathan said. “The specialty of this one, which nobody else can claim, is it was built completely by undergrads.”
The project began in 2015 and involved physics, biology, computer science and chemistry students. Work culminated over the summer as Adam Jabak, Zachary Ells, both class of 2020, and Brian Dolle, ’19, consistently caught DNA molecules using the tweezers.
The high-tech tool is located in the single molecule biophysics lab inside the Dana Mohler-Faria Science and Mathematics Center.
“It’s super exciting to put all your effort into something and finally see it come to fruition,” said Brian, a physics and math major from King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.
The trailblazing students who laid the groundwork for the tweezers were Brian Daudelin, ’17, who led efforts to assemble the necessary equipment, including a table that is suspended in air to prevent and eliminate vibrations; along with Eric Grotzke and Amanda Coughlin, both class of 2017, who tackled computer programming and aligning the lasers.
Current seniors William Coon and Benjamin Hanson caught the first DNA in 2017, setting the stage for Adam, Brian Dolle, and Zachary.
The trio, working this summer with a grant from BSU’s Adrian Tinsley Program for Undergraduate Research and Creative Scholarship, overcame challenges to consistently catch DNA using the tweezers. To do so, they had to focus laser beams on a minuscule point – about 100 times thinner than the thickness of a strand of human hair.
“It was a journey,” said Zachary, a physics major from Douglas who will conduct research at Northeastern University next summer thanks to a National Science Foundation grant the Boston school shared with BSU. “I thought I was just coming in to take data. It’s not like that. You run into real issues and roadblocks.”
They may have faced similar challenges as Arthur Ashkin, a scientist who recently received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his pioneering work to develop optical tweezers
But, the story of optical tweezers is about more than building the device. Brian Dolle and Zachary use it to study doxorubicin, which treats many forms of cancer. Meanwhile, Adam researches how ruthenium-based prospective drug molecules bind to DNA.
They credit BSU with providing them a chance to do research normally reserved for graduate students.
“Being able to get undergraduate research experience definitely gives you a good sense of what graduate school will be like,” said Adam, a physics major from Boston who hopes to continue studying biophysics.
The experience also helps them compete for top graduate school spots.
“It means a lot more when you say ‘I have done research,’” Brian said.
Many others contributed to the development of the optical tweezers, including of Devon West-Coates, Jon del’Etoile, and Erin McLaughlin, all class of 2016, and Nicholas Bryden, ’17. (Story by Brian Benson, video by Carl Hollant, ’15, University News & Video; some photos provided, others by Drew Cambra, ’19)