Research that can Change the World

By Bob Cunningham

Light’s impact can be felt everywhere.

During the past century, light’s role in the fields of physics, chemistry and biology has expanded to include emerging fields such as environmental engineering, agriculture, materials science and biomedicine, according to Dr. Malcolm D.E. Forbes, director of the BGSU Center for Photochemical Sciences.

“Light is used in technologies for dental materials, food packaging, X-ray, MRI and other biological imaging technologies,” Forbes said. “The possibilities are endless.”

“Anytime light lands on a material, the light will, in general, affect that material, either physically or chemically.”

As an example of forthcoming breakthroughs in light technology, Forbes cited combating disease outbreaks.

“A lot of insects have a fluorescent signature,” he said. “So, if you filter all the visible light away and only let the ultraviolet light through, you’ll get a signature from that insect — for example, all the eyes will be blue. Now imagine you have a drone with a fluorescence detector, an onboard computer with pattern recognition software, and a canister of insecticide. The drone can recognize a specific insect, say a mosquito, and now you can fight disease outbreaks like Zika.”

Ultimately, Forbes hopes to position the center to solve 21st-century problems with photochemistry.

“That’s why our work is important,” he said. “That’s why we want to keep going forward. All of our faculty are tuned into the broader impacts of their research programs.”

“BGSU is unique in the nation to have such an innovative center,” said President Mary Ellen Mazey. “With talented faculty striving for scientific breakthroughs while also mentoring promising students, BGSU truly has the opportunity to make a difference in a world seeking answers to complicated questions.”

Doug Neckers Portrait

The center, founded in 1985 by Dr. Douglas Neckers, McMaster Professor Emeritus of Photochemical Sciences at BGSU, is the only academic institution in the world that offers a doctoral degree in photochemical sciences.

Neckers, who was instrumental in building BGSU into a photochemistry leader, was honored in 2016 as a recipient of the prestigious Theodor Förster Prize from the German Chemical Society, which has recognized internationally acclaimed photochemists since 1975.

Forbes was named the director of the center in July 2015 after serving 25 years on the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He also worked at the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C., as a program officer in the chemistry division, before being hired at BGSU.

“We are unique in the world,” Forbes said of the center. “That’s a great selling point for us. It’s made us marketable on an international level.”

photochemical-testing

Forbes had sought a leadership position in which he could make an imprint in the field of photochemistry, the branch of chemistry concerned with the chemical effects of light. He’s found that at BGSU.“What I like about the position here is I get to look at, in very broad strokes, what we would like to do as a center because we cross physics, chemistry and biological sciences,” Forbes said. “Where can we go? How can we get better? How can we raise BGSU’s profile overall?

“To do that the center has been given some additional faculty positions. We have two searches going on right now, and there are certain areas on which I would like to focus. One is polymers and materials. The others are agriculture and neuroscience. I’m looking at all of these fields as peripheral to our core, photochemistry. We’re looking for people working in these areas who can interact with our core so that we can grow outward and upward, leveraging success in other departments across campus.”

Forbes’ other task, in addition to a multitude of public relations activities, is recruiting more academically prepared domestic graduate students. Historically, photochemistry has had a pipeline from overseas, but he is targeting students in Ohio and neighboring states for a better balance.

Another priority for Forbes is working to increase the center’s interactions with industry. He has created the Industrial Affiliates, which is primarily a blanket consulting arrangement involving all center faculty. A company pays a fee every year to be a member of the Affiliates, and in exchange gets one day a year of the faculty’s time. Forbes hopes these consulting relationships will transform into funding opportunities. The money raised from the consultation fees is used to enhance stipends for graduate students.

Forbes said 2016 was a banner year for the center for research funds.

Alexis-Ostrowski

Dr. Alexis Ostrowski, an assistant professor in the chemistry department, was named as one of 16 Emerging Investigators in Inorganic Photochemistry and Photophysics by the American Chemical Society. Additionally, Ostrowski received a prestigious CAREER award of $600,000 from the National Science Foundation. The success rate for CAREER grants is just 15 percent nationwide, placing her in the upper echelons of her generation of inorganic chemists.

Dr. Mikhail Zamkov, an associate professor in the physics and astronomy department, received a three-year award for $427,335 from the U.S. Department of Energy to support his project, “Solution-Processed Photovoltaic Devices Utilizing Semiconductor Excitonic Nanoshells.”  

The center also had a major research instrumentation proposal funded for $235,000 for new ultrafast lasers.

The center has a highly collaborative and collegial
working environment.

“In the past five years our 17 faculty members have published 27 joint research papers in high-impact, peer-reviewed scientific journals,” Forbes said.

“My philosophy, what I teach the faculty to do, is find ways to broaden your portfolio so that you can have some research that’s very fundamental – work that the National Science Foundation would love to fund – not necessarily very applied, but that could have a long-term societal impact. But we also need mission-oriented research, which would be the Department of Energy and National Institutes of Health, and applied research, such as the Department of Defense or
industry — I’m targeting both of those.”

Connecting with industries in Ohio is an important aspect of Forbes’ goals for the center. The Ohio Federal Military Jobs Commission was passed into law in 2014 to increase interactions between academic institutions in Ohio and the federal and national labs such as the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) near Dayton.

“This is another important area for BGSU, as this is new state money that will go to scientists trying to connect and collaborate with other scientists. These collaborations seek to keep federal dollars in Ohio,” Forbes said. “It’s a sort of seed money for proposals that eventually will go to AFRL or
NASA Glenn.”

When it comes to potential for life-changing scientific innovation in the coming decades, a bright light is shining on the BGSU Center for Photochemical Sciences.