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Risk Taking Leads to High-Resolution World of Biophotonics

Mouse Liver Cells

James Fitzpatrick

James Fitzpatrick considers himself a risk-taker. An optical engineer with a background in chemical physics, he has a tendency to gravitate toward all things "death-defying."

On a personal level , he is not drawn to safe pursuits. He nearly drowned after falling overboard while rafting on a class IV river in Pennsylvania. He does not shy away from treacherous cliff-top hikes like those in Bryce Canyon, Utah. And now that he's moved to San Diego to direct the Salk's Biophotonics Core Facility, Fitzpatrick can be found zipping around town, the pedal to the metal in his turbo-charged Subaru Impreza WRX, just like the World Rally Championship heroes he admits to obsessively follow on television.

"I spend a lot of my time devoted to science so when I do get the chance to relax I like to tear it up a little bit," he jokes.

For this adrenaline junkie, who grew up outside of London and earned his Ph.D. at age 23, his penchant for doing the boldly non-traditional is what eventually led Fitzpatrick to a career in biophotonics, the science of applying photon-based microscopy to biology. And for that, he credits Harry Potter -- the fictional boy wizard made famous in the popular children's book series.

"At first I didn't want to read the books, I thought it was complete rubbish, but there's something about the writing. There's something there for children and for adults," explains Fitzpatrick, who read the first Harry Potter book when he was in graduate school developing optical techniques to probe diatomic molecules at ultra-high resolution.

"It taught me that sometimes you shouldn't judge a book by its intended audience, and that I should think about pushing myself to do things outside of my comfort zone."

That was about the time Fitzpatrick started white-water rafting. But it was also when he started thinking about applying his own laser optics wizardry to biological systems. "There's only so much you can look at in two or three atom molecules. It tends to get a bit boring after a while," he says.

He applied his laser-based techniques to probe proteins and their interactions at Carnegie Mellon University, where he was invited in 2006 to develop fluorescence correlation microscopy technology in the new NIH Technology Center for Networks and Pathways. He was eventually promoted to direct the Microscopy and Imaging Facility at the Center.

"I found myself energized by all these biological problems and there were so many opportunities for technological approaches to solve those questions," Fitzpatrick says. "Most biologists really didn't know about imaging methods or how we could integrate the technology and the biology in order to get a more robust answer in a quicker timeframe."

Salk's biophotonics initiative was funded in 2008 with a $20 million challenge grant by the Waitt Family Foundation, an organization led by its president and founder Ted Waitt, who is also Vice-Chair of Salk's Board of Trustees. The grant not only launched the Waitt Advanced Biophotonics Center, but it is also is helping to usher in what Fitzpatrick says will ensure the next generation of biological breakthroughs at the Institute.

Using laser-based imaging technology that facilitates deep probes within living cells and tissues at unprecedented resolutions, scientists are now able to view the interactions of single molecules. To put the power of biophotonics in perspective, an average, off-the-shelf light microscope can zoom in on the surface of a cell (about half the diameter of single strand of human hair), but microscopes in the Biophotonics Core Facility can dive deep within single components of that cell to study how they interact with one another in their healthy and diseased states.

Ultimately, the goal is to make and study movies of these interactions so scientists can better understand the inner workings of cells, and how they relate to the functionality of the entire body.

"Starting from the ground up and building working models of how living organisms function and how they are impaired during human disease is key," Fitzpatrick says. "Cutting-edge, technological approaches in imaging will really help to facilitate all areas of research at Salk, including cancer, aging, obesity and neurodegenerative disease.

"Problems that people wouldn't necessarily think about tackling because they may not have had the technology to do so, we can now help to make happen," he says. "And that's really what makes the biophotonics initiative transformative."