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ICAM Fellow Connects Projects at the University of Chicago and the Weizmann Institute

Sun, June 19, 2011

Elad Harel is participating in his second year as an ICAM Fellow.  In February of 2011 he arrived in Israel to begin work at the Weizmann Institute of Science, one of the world’s leading research centers.

Harel is working on two very different, yet connected projects.  In the first project at the University of Chicago, Harel is measuring quantum mechanical effects in photosynthesis. While photosynthesis has been studied for decades and is now well-understood biologically, scientists still have many questions regarding the physical means of energy transport.  Harel is trying to understand how quantum mechanics, the strange set of laws that atoms and molecules must follow, participates in biological processes such as photosynthesis.

The earliest events in photosynthesis occur on extremely fast timescales – on the order of one millionth of one millionth of a second.  Using lasers that produce very short pulses of light, Harel, working in the group of Greg Engel in Chicago, is tracking the fate of the absorbed light in these light-harvesting systems with unprecedented detail.  Harel and his coworkers would like to determine if the use of quantum mechanics is a general phenomenon in biology or if it is specific only to photosynthetic complexes.  This work may have implications for the exploitation of quantum mechanical laws to improve the efficiency of artificial light-harvesting systems such as solar cells.

Harel’s second project at the Weizmann Institute involves imaging metallic implants in mice using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).  Implants present a significant hurdle for imaging of many patients due to the detrimental effects of metallic objects on the surrounding tissue.  Harel, with the group at Weizmann, is working on developing new pulse sequences that can overcome and largely eliminate these artifacts.  The goal of this work is to improve the image quality of MRI scans in clinical settings. This has important implications for patients with pacemakers, hip and knee replacements, implants such as screws and rods, as well as metal fillings, all of which act to distort the image near the location of the foreign object. 

Though magnetic resonance and optics operate on vastly different timescales and lengthscales, Harel finds that they have some deep connections. At the University of Chicago, Harel and his coworkers have recently demonstrated an MRI analog of optical spectroscopy, which is the study of the interaction of light and matter.  The idea of using tools in medical imaging to aid in understanding the structure of molecules originated in the Weizmann group with which Harel collaborates.  Harel and others are using these ideas in the optical regime to understand how electrons behave in complex biomolecules in real-time.  This offers the possibility of one day observing processes inside a cell with unprecedented molecular-level resolution. 

Harel told ICAM that the fellowship has offered him many opportunities, books, supplies, and experiences that have enhanced his career. Still, he finds that the most important benefits involve collaboration; says Harel, “ICAM has allowed me to work with two incredible groups in Chicago and Israel and use my experience at each to enhance the other.  This is truly an example of cooperativity, where interaction with one institute has enhanced the interaction with the other.”

Greg Engel, Harel’s mentor at the University of Chicago, finds Harel’s enthusiasm and cooperative spirit infectious. “Elad has been an incredible asset for my group and my institute,” remarked Engel. “He has initiated exciting collaborations across the institute, and he has helped to mentor and train a number of graduate students.  Elad elevates those around him; scientists around Elad simply do better work because of his presence and his interactions with them.”  Regardless of what field Harel works in, Engel believes Harel will be at the forefront due to his “creativity and vision.”

Though his ambitious project of working in two areas has raised some questions among his colleagues, Harel has found the experience rewarding. “A lot of people ask me about the difficulty of switching fields,” he admits. “My personal view is that venturing into an unfamiliar area has the tremendous advantage of not being limited by preconceived notions of what can and cannot be accomplished.  Many of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century came from individuals who were not aware that what they were trying to do was ‘impossible.’” Harel finds support in the ICAM community where “interactions between historically disparate fields” are encouraged.

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