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  • Building collaboration in synchrotron’s glow

Apr 2011
Karen A. Newman

Growing up in the shadow of Fermilab, home to what was for many years the world’s highest-energy synchrotron, we followed every groundbreaking and history-making event at “the lab” from the moment when its future in Batavia, Ill., was announced. We let words and phrases such as “accelerator” and “Tevatron” and “quark,” “atom smasher” and “Higgs boson” slip into our vocabulary as easily as kids today embrace every new digital game and technology.

Through newspaper reports and visits to the facility, I learned of the many collaborative efforts that gave Fermilab life and kept it funded and, in so doing, advanced the world’s understanding of the particles of matter and brought the world to our door.

Now, another joint effort, several years in the making, has come to our attention. Though different in scale and mission, this project also is the result of the efforts of many dedicated scientists and supporters from several universities, and it, too, has a synchrotron at its core.

The project is a facility called IRENI (infrared environmental imaging), built to advance a technique that uses infrared chemical imaging with multiple beams. The method offers high-resolution pictures of the molecular composition of tissues with unprecedented speed and quality, according to its developers.

Installed at the Synchrotron Radiation Center (SRC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UWM), IRENI cuts the amount of time needed to image a sample from hours to minutes, while quadrupling the range of the sample size. The technique could have applications beyond medicine, in pharmaceutical drug analysis, art conservation, forensics and more.

Carol Hirschmugl, a physicist at UWM, led a multi-institutional team of investigators in a demonstration of its capabilities in March, and results were published online in Nature Methods on March 20. Hirschmugl and UWM scientist Michael Nasse built the IRENI facility, where the current work is a collaboration among the labs of Rohit Bhargava, assistant professor of bioengineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and pathologists Virgilia Macias and Andre Kajdacsy-Balla at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The national user facility at the SRC is funded by a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Major Research Instrumentation Program. It is quickly attracting other projects.

We applaud the desire and the effort that have gone into the development of this project, and the work and drive that will sustain it in the future. We look forward to the advances in areas both known and as yet unknown that will come from the work undertaken at IRENI. And, most of all, we celebrate the teamwork that makes possible IRENI and Fermilab and countless other research facilities around the world.

As for Fermilab, it has been announced that the Tevatron will be retired later this year, closing another chapter in the lab’s long history but opening another for explorations in different directions, and for new collaborative efforts for the scientific community.

Enjoy this issue.

A device that uses superconducting magnets to bend or accelerate charged particles. It can be used to etch very fine high-density patterns on integrated circuits.
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