Remembering Michael Berns | UCI News


Biomedical laser pioneer Michael Berns, who co-founded and led the UCI’s renowned Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic, died on Saturday August 13. He was 79 years old.

Known for his groundbreaking work using “laser scissors and tweezers” to manipulate cells, among other innovations, Berns was also a painter, avocado farmer, and spy novelist.

“He was way ahead of his time,” said current Beckman Lab director Thomas Milner, who described Berns as “creative, tenacious, complex and kind.”

Born in December 1942 in Burlington, Vermont, Berns originally dreamed of being a veterinarian. He took a detour to lasers while studying biology at Cornell University.

“It was 1966 and all I knew about lasers was that Goldfinger was going to cut James Bond in half,” he wrote for a talk to be delivered later this month in San Diego. “Then one of my professors at Cornell told me that the department had purchased a small ruby ​​laser but did not know what to do with it.”

Berns found an answer – and more.

After completing his Ph.D. in 1968, he became the first person to perform subcellular chromosome surgery, helped pioneer laser nanosurgery and eventually earned the nickname “Father of Laser Microbeams”, according to SPIE, the International Society for Optics and Photonics , which awarded Berns its gold medal this year for lifetime achievement.

In 1972, after teaching zoology at the University of Michigan, he joined the Department of Developmental and Cellular Biology at UCI, which he later chaired, and enchanted the students. “His class was so much fun,” said Sari Mahon, who first studied with Berns in 1974 and is now assistant director of the Beckman Laser Institute. “He was an incredibly dedicated mentor and teacher.”

Its flagship achievement – the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic – began to take shape in 1979, when Berns won an NIH grant to establish the Laser Microbeam program, better known as LAMP, at UCI.

“After spending a year building the LAMP system – an instrument with a tunable wavelength laser microbeam and a wide range of energies and exposure times – Berns sent invitations to all medical company CEOs and Biotechnology in Orange County,” according to SPIE. “To his surprise, Arnold Beckman (then 80 years old and still running Beckman Instruments in Fullerton)” showed up at the lab one rainy morning.

In 1982, businessman and philanthropist Arnold Beckman, left, presents Michael Berns with the first check for the establishment of the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the UCI. Beckman Laser Institute and Medical Clinic

Beckman, an influential scientist and businessman whose invention of the pH meter in 1934 launched his business, was fascinated by the potential of LAMP.

His subsequent investment in “a young professor, an unproven university, and emerging technology” – as one story puts it – led to the institute’s beginnings in 1986, with Berns as founding director of the lab – and his heart and soul .

Even today, nearly two decades after Berns left the center’s leadership, it’s hard to separate the man from the institute, Milner said.

The walls are decorated with his paintings and the building itself bears his stamp, said Elliot Botvinick, professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at UCI who carried out his postdoctoral work under Berns: “The architectural design is a testament to the ability of Michael looking decades into the future. The building was one of the few in the world to combine a medical clinic with basic molecular biology, biophotonics and engineering, all in the same hallway. His vision was to have technologies invented in labs, matured, and ultimately brought to the clinic. … Many technologies have been commercialized.

Scientists have come from all over the world for a residency at the institute, Botvinick added. And, in turn, Berns traveled the world to share his expertise.

On a trip to the Soviet Union in 1979 to lecture on laser biomedicine at Moscow State University, he was interrogated by KGB agents for 12 hours after he was caught smuggling smuggled Jewish prayer books in a false bottom suitcase. (He was transporting contraband in support of student activists at the UCI.) The incident later inspired a character in his 2021 spy novel, The Tinderbox conspiracy.

“As a lifelong thriller fan, I imagined these interrogators reporting to a boss like Karla in John le Carré’s novel, Smiley People“, he recently wrote. “After the Jewish Bible bust, I was never allowed to return to the Soviet Union, but my interest in culture, politics and people in Russia never decreases. Neither did my fascination with spy novels, and eventually I decided to write one.

But lasers remain his supreme legacy. Berns’ scientific achievements, which are too legion to catalog, were “very impactful and did not slow down throughout his career,” Botvinick noted. “His work has been cited more than 26,000 times, spanning the areas of developmental biology, DNA repair, mechanobiology, cytoskeleton, fertility, endangered species preservation and immunology, to name a few.”

In 1994, he was awarded the UCI Medal, the university’s highest honour.

Berns, who retired in 2020 as an Arnold and Mabel Beckman professor at UCI (he was also an adjunct professor of bioengineering at UC San Diego), is survived by his son, Gregory, an expert in canine psychology, MD and professor emeritus of neuroeconomics at Emory University; his daughter, Tammy Karn, an English teacher at Mt. San Antonio College; and two granddaughters.


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