Bright Spot: The Biophotonics Center Shines Light on the Intersection of Physics, Engineering and Medicine


Tucked away on a service road between the edge of Vanderbilt’s main campus and Vanderbilt University Medical Center sits a brick building so intentionally nondescript, other than its tall façade of darkened glass, that it practically screams “mystery” to casual passersby. The intrigue only deepens as you read the sign outside: “W.M. Keck Free Electron Laser (FEL) Center.”

Despite the foreboding exterior, inside is a state-of-the-art laser laboratory that serves as a kind of hub of cross-disciplinary research at Vanderbilt. Forty faculty members from across the university and VUMC—working on topics ranging from astrophysics to cancer treatments—have an affiliation with what is now known as the Biophotonics Center. Led by Anita Mahadevan-Jansen, the Orrin H. Ingram Professor of Biomedical Engineering and professor of neurological surgery, the center also provides undergraduate and graduate students with hands-on experience at one of the world’s leading optics facilities.

The center’s origins trace back to a U.S. Department of Defense grant from the 1980s exploring the use of lasers to treat combat wounds. Then, as now, the center offered an ideal location for such work, situated midway between physics and engineering research labs on one side and patient rooms at VUMC on the other. Similar government-funded facilities were built around the same time at Stanford, Duke, Harvard, and the University of California–Irvine. However, military funding for the program ended in 2007, and Vanderbilt’s Free Electron Laser center closed a year later as a result.

Then last February, the 5,000-square-foot center officially reopened after an extensive renovation. Ongoing research there covers three main areas: cancer treatment and detection, neurosurgery, and nanotechnology. “The Biophotonics Center is aimed at fundamental research and discovery, as well as improving patient care,” Mahadevan-Jansen says. Current funding for biophotonics research at Vanderbilt totals nearly $25 million.

In this photo essay, Vanderbilt Magazine takes a peek inside the Biophotonics Center and some of the work now being done based on research there.