Use of ultrashort-pulsed lasers to excite fluorescence of chlorophyll in plants as an optical biosensor for nuclear activity

Recent NERS Ph.D. graduate Lauren Finney’s research on remote detection of a signature for uranium exposure in algae published in Scientific Reports.


Dr. Lauren Finney’s research on remote detection of a signature for uranium exposure in algae was recently published in Scientific Reports. Finney is currently a postdoctoral research scientist at the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab and recently received her PhD from the U-M Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences (NERS), advised by Prof. Igor Jovanovic.

Finney exposed green algae to uranium that was dissolved in water and observed changes in the optical properties of the algae. In other words, how algae interact with light. Specifically, the pigment content in the algae along with the laser-induced fluorescence lifetime is used to identify a signature for uranium exposure. Finney believes this technique could be applied more broadly to pollution monitoring or plant health monitoring for agriculture, a fact bolstered by her advisor, Prof. Igor Jovanovic, who commented, “It is an interesting technique for nuclear security, but it may also have an application to agriculture as a means to measure plant stress remotely.” 

two jars with green liquid inside
A picture of some of the  algae grown (Chlamydomonas reinhardtii) for the experiment.

Finney mentions that this paper was a culmination of a multi-year effort to learn about how plants respond to stressors in their environment, the different ways in which stress manifests in measurable properties, and the testing of the best methods to measure these properties with intense laser beams. She adds, “It’s always exciting to find an interesting result and share it with the rest of the community.”

Finney worked in a laser/optics lab and a plasma science lab for her undergraduate research while pursuing her degree in chemistry from the University of Tennessee. This is how she got interested in plasma and nuclear science. Finney said, “When researching graduate schools, I found the unique opportunity to fuse my optics, chemistry, and nuclear science interests in Prof. Jovanovic’s group at the University of Michigan in the NERS department.” While at NERS, Finney served as the graduate student council president. She was also a part of the Detroit Area Pre-College Education Program (DAPCEP) Glow Blue class, which plans and teaches intro to nuclear engineering classes to 7th–9th graders in the Detroit area. 

“I would like to thank my advisor, Prof. Jovanovic, for his regular support, feedback, and encouragement on this multi-disciplinary project,” said Finney. “I would also like to thank my committee member, Prof. Gretchen Keppel-Aleks in CLASP, for her expertise and discussions that helped me better understand the greater impact of this work.” Lastly, Finney thanks her co-authors, namely Dr. Patrick Skrodzki, Nicholas Peskosky, Dr. Milos Burger, John Nees, Prof. Krushelnick, and also Pro. Jovanovic for their many contributions to making this work successful.

Lauren with her committee members after her Ph.D. defense.

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