Young Colorado State University Professor Awarded Several Prestigious Grants to Study Lasers, Optics

Colorado State University engineering faculty member Randy Bartels has an impressive track record of late, earning several prestigious awards over the past few weeks to support his research in lasers and nonlinear optics.

Bartels, assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, has received the National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Award, the Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Award, the Beckman Young Investigator Award, the Sloan Research Fellowship and the Optical Society of America Adolph Lomb Medal. The awards, worth more than $1 million, firmly establish the 30-year-old Bartels as a rising star in his field.

"Early in his career, Dr. Bartels is already known as a national leader in the important field of ultrafast optics and lasers," said Tony Maciejewski, department head of electrical and computer engineering at Colorado State. "We are proud to have Randy as a member of our faculty and pleased that he has been honored with these well-deserved awards. It’s hopefully the beginning of many accomplishments and accolades for him."

Bartels heads the Colorado State University Laboratory for Ultrafast and Nonlinear Optics. His research concentrates on the generation and control of short laser pulses and their use for the control of quantum dynamics. He is working on better ways to make molecules dance, with a particular focus on controlling large, biological molecules.

Bartels’ research is tied together by the idea of using laser pulses specially shaped in time to make specific molecules dance together, while others are unaffected. By choosing an appropriately shaped laser pulse, Bartels’ team hopes to make specific molecules dance in a controlled way, providing a new method for controlling and detecting molecules. If this is possible, it may open the door to new and powerful tools for studying proteins and their function inside of cells. With a new way of peering directly into the inner working of cells, it may be possible to better understand the biological function of proteins and their relationship to disease, which may suggest new approaches to treatment of diseases.  

Another gratifying aspect of his research is that the results often transmute one color to another. Under some conditions, the rainbow of colors produced by the laser system can be considered beautiful.

"An important aspect of research is what questions do you ask and try to answer," Bartels said. "It’s important to choose research that is high risk but has the potential to create new knowledge and have a positive benefit for our society and quality of life.     

"Even though I have had some early successes, I feel like I am just getting started," Bartels said of his work. "I’m very excited about making progress on these new projects that have recently been funded. I greatly appreciate all of the support and recognition that I have received from my colleagues, from the university as a whole and from these awards. Most importantly, I am lucky to have a wonderfully supportive wife who puts up with me and my hectic schedule."

Bartels is using the grants to research how well lasers can be used to control molecular motion and to search for new ways to harness those dancing molecules. After a shaped laser pulse has choreographed the dancing molecules, Bartels sends in additional laser pulses into the molecules. When these additional pulses go through the dancing molecules, the pulse shapes get distorted. Bartels hopes to understand how the subsequent pulses are distorted and use those distortions to drive new technology, such as advanced optical clocks, or detect the dancing molecules themselves for applications such as medical imaging.

"The idea is to gain an understanding of the process of choreographing the molecular dancing and then use these molecules to control other light pulses and beams and allow us to extend the utility of these very short laser pulses," Bartels said. "Chemists want an easy way to change frequencies and also want very short pulses because the dynamics are on very, very short time scales. Ifyou can have a very short pulse, you can study molecular systems and chemical reactions. The dancing molecules are a way to accomplish this."

Another application for the coherently dancing molecules is to create ultra stable optical frequency sources for optical clocks. These clocks will be 10,000 times more stable than atomic clocks that are currently used for frequency standards. These clocks will be used for fundamental tests of physics and precision measurements, and could eventually even be placed on satellites and airplanes to improve navigation.

Bartels also hopes to use laser pulses as a medical diagnostic imaging technique. The goal of this effort is to be able to image the location and concentration of specific biological molecules directly in a living organism. The idea is based on using shaped laser pulses to make some molecules dance and jiggle, while other neighboring molecules do not. Next, another imaging pulse will form a holographic image containing information about the presence and strength of specific molecules of interest. Each molecule dances and jiggles with a unique fingerprint that should allow Bartels to study specific biological molecules directly in living organisms.

"Ultimately, the new knowledge of molecular control will be applied to study and manipulate proteins with light directly in a cellular environment. This new degree of freedom may lead to tools that help uncover the function of many biological molecules in their natural environment," Bartels said.

Before joining the electrical and computer engineering department in 2003, Bartels earned his doctoral degree in electrical engineering at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor in 2002.

Bartels has received numerous awards and was selected as a member of the U.S. delegation to attend the 51st annual meeting of Nobel laureates in Lindau, Germany. He also has published more than 20 peer-reviewed journal articles and has been invited to speak at more than 25 conferences. His research has been widely reported in trade publications and the popular press.

Bartels is a member of the Optical Society of America, the American Physical Society and the Laser and Electro-optics Society/Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. He is married and has a young daughter.

For more information on Bartels and his research, visit the Web at