Valentin Gapontsev, who received an honorary Doctor of Engineering Degree from WPI in 2001, was an internationally recognized physicist widely known as the “Father of the Fiber Laser Industry.” In 2001, with the burgeoning job market in photonics and the need for greater photonics research, Gapontsev began a long partnership and record of generous support with WPI. It started with the establishment of the IPG Photonics Laboratory, located in Olin Hall, a valuable academic resource for teaching photonics with emphasis on fibers, lasers, and detectors. Gapontsev passed away in October 2021, but his legacy lives on at WPI. The Gapontsev family has continued to support the university in critically important ways. Reflecting Valentin’s penchant for innovation and scientific discovery, the family recently established the Gapontsev Family Collaborative Venture Fund, with the goal of incentivizing, catalyzing, and inspiring interdisciplinary collaboration across the WPI enterprise with a special focus on photonics. The seed grants, awarded through a competitive process, will enable more successful research endeavors.

Six faculty were awarded Gapontsev seed grants last academic year to support three very different research projects that use photonics to push the boundaries of innovation, while also providing first-rate research opportunities for students. In the coming weeks, spotlights will be shared on the projects the Gapontsev Family Collaborative Venture Fund has made possible. 

Read the full Donor Impact Story in the upcoming Summer WPI Journal.

Detecting Foodborne Bacteria

Food poisoning, grocery recalls—foodborne bacteria impact everyone. Yuxiang (Shawn) Liu, associate professor of mechanical engineering, and his co-PI Christopher Lambert, teaching professor of chemistry and biochemistry, are seeking a better way to help us avoid foodborne bacteria. The Gapontsev grant supports their research into a portable, rapid method for detecting foodborne bacteria in the field.

Foodborne bacteria play a big role in food contamination, Liu explains, and can result in foodborne outbreaks, recalls, sickness, and even death. Complicating the issue, he says, contamination can happen anywhere along the supply chain from farm to table. 

According to Liu, “Currently the gold standard detection method for foodborne bacteria still relies on bacteria plating, which requires equipment in a testing center and generally 24 to 48 hours to obtain the results. In short, current testing methods are limited in locations and in response time.” Importantly, this also limits how quickly and efficiently communities can react to an outbreak.

Liu and Lambert envision a foodborne bacteria detection device that can provide results at any location point, as well as a detection patch included in food packaging to warn whenever contaminants are present. This technology would enable anyone with little training to determine the biosafety level of foods within a few hours, Liu explains. Lamert adds that everyone can benefit from reduced foodborne outbreaks—people in resource-limited areas to soldiers on the battlefield—and this technology could be applied to any bacteria, not just foodborne ones.

“The general support of the Gapontsev Fund provides an opportunity for us to prove the concept of this idea, and the preliminary data will significantly enhance our changes to obtain major funding support from federal agencies.”

“We deeply appreciate your kind support of our research, and your support is essential for us to push forward this idea to eventually benefit the masses in the future,” Liu says of the Gapontsev family’s support.