University hires new director for free electron laser lab
Glenn Edwards has been appointed the new director of Duke's free electron laser lab, putting the former Vanderbilt University biophysicist in a prestigious, but previously controversial, position.
Provost John Strohbehn picked Edwards to replace John Madey, who founded Duke's lab in 1989. Madey feuded with University officials over administrative control of the lab and sued Duke in 1997 for ownership of the device. The lawsuit is awaiting trial in federal court. Last August, he left for the University of Hawaii.
The free electron laser extracts laser light from electrons that have been separated from their atoms, making the laser capable of producing amplified light in many different wavelengths. These properties give the free electron laser a variety of applications in physics, medicine and other life sciences.
As a result, running an FEL lab requires a unique assortment of skills. The physicist must have advanced technical knowledge of laser light sources, familiarity with the laser's applications across the life sciences and an ability to collaborate effectively with scientists from many different fields.
"Indeed, the number of qualified candidates is very small, and anyone we would have liked to consider has a very good job now," said Professor Berndt Mueller, chair of the physics department.
Edwards, who began working May 3, faces several challenges. Perhaps the most pressing is making the Mark III infrared device-which has not functioned correctly for 10 months-produce a laser beam. The Mark III is now generating spontaneous bursts of light and should be able to produce a laser shortly, Edwards said.
Duke also has a new ultraviolet laser, the OK-4; the University will receive a Russian-built OK-5 by the end of the year.
Edwards said he plans to broaden the lab's work beyond the biomedical sciences.
Mueller said, "It was important for us to have a director who is close to the life sciences because of the close links of [the lab] with researchers from the Duke Medical Center, but also because of the broad application opportunities of the [FEL] light sources in the biosciences."
Another of Edwards' major challenges is running the lab smoothly and coordinating the several different research groups at the University that use FEL technology.
"The position that I have is clearly one that requires what I would call scientific leadership," Edwards said.
Madey's departure was precipitated by a negative external review of the science and management of the lab. As a result, Strohbehn offered to remove Madey from his administrative post and to make him chief scientist. He declined the offer.
In any lab using relatively new technology, this scientific leadership must be complemented by technical expertise, said Madey, one of the original designers of the FEL. "The technology is rarely in a state when it is first being explored and when its application is being explored, to be used on a turn-key basis." He added that he thinks Edwards will do an effective job at broadening the applications of FEL technology across the life sciences.
Under Edwards' directorship, Vanderbilt's W.M. Keck Free Electron Laser Center thrived, said Bill Gabella, associate director for machine operations at Vanderbilt. "He's exactly the right guy at the right time for Duke," Gabella said. "He's got sort of a gentle demeanor.... You can't sit around and collect enemies as a lab director and expect to stay around very long."
In his first month at the University, Edwards has been working on the renewal of the FEL lab's major grant from the Office of Naval Research. Edwards and Strohbehn said they are confident Duke will retain the grant.
One of the competitors for this grant will be Madey, who is trying to create a top center in Hawaii.
Edwards said he thinks of Madey as "a colleague and a friend.... I hold John in the highest regard," he said. "I look at what happened to John as a scientific divorce. It's like watching a marriage fall apart. It's just a sad thing to watch and you don't take sides."