Stephen Foulger of Clemson University works to expand world-class center
Tiny particles would be injected into a patient, lodge themselves near light-sensitive proteins in the brain and activate synapses when hit with X-rays.
It’s a potential treatment for addiction that Stephen Foulger is helping research as he pushes to expand Clemson University’s Center for Optical Materials Science and Engineering Technologies.
Researchers at the center let its 16th anniversary pass with little fanfare, but it could prove to be a quiet build-up to a much bigger reason to celebrate.
Foulger, the center’s director, said some researchers are expanding into cutting-edge fields, such as optogenetics, while others continue groundbreaking work on optical devices that lead to more powerful lasers and have made the center known around the world.
Some of the university’s fastest-rising junior faculty members are using the center to aid their research. Meanwhile, undergraduates from as far away as Utah are flocking to the center each summer for a program that prepares them for graduate school.
Foulger helped found the center, which is often called by its acronym COMSET. He said the university has made big improvements in its research infrastructure over the years.
“The university has hired really well,” Foulger said. “We’ve got some exceedingly capable people. The university now has to capitalize on that. We need more big, prestigious centers to solidify our reputation as a top-tier research university. The infrastructure, both human and physical, is here.”
Foulger is working to help make those big, prestigious centers a reality, through his own research and by supporting the work of others.
His research in optogenetics builds on previous work showing that cocaine-addicted rats quit seeking the drug when the prefrontal cortex was stimulated with laser light.
The light was delivered through fibers inserted into the brain, which would be too invasive for people. As an alternative, Foulgler hopes to help to create specially designed nanoparticles that would be injectable.
“The idea is, ‘Could you do the same thing but illuminate with X-rays and not have to go through the skull with a fiber?’” he said.
He is working on the project with researchers at the University of South Carolina, the University of New Mexico and the University of Alabama.
COMSET was founded in 2000 and is housed at the Advanced Materials Research Center about 15 minutes from Clemson’s main campus.
The center brings together faculty members from a wide range of backgrounds to collaborate on advanced materials and devices and systems that generate, transmit, manipulate and use light.
The cutting-edge facilities at the center include a two-story draw tower that researchers use to make specially designed optical fiber– technology that often goes into making more powerful lasers.
“Not many universities have that sort of infrastructure,” Foulger said. “John Ballato (the former director) has done a remarkable job. A lot of my colleagues are really amazed to see that Clemson has something like that.”
Since its founding, researchers at COMSET have published more than 700 peer-reviewed journal articles, which have been cited more than 7,900 times. Technologies developed at the center have led to two startups, Advanced Photonic Crystals and Tetramer Technologies.
Foulger, who is also the Gregg-Graniteville Endowed Chair, served as COMSET’s associate director before taking the helm as director last year. Over the years, the center has used funds from the College of Engineering and Science, the vice president of research and sponsored research to stock labs with equipment.
“We use that money to subsidize ideas,” he said. “If you have a high risk idea, you’re not going to buy equipment to try it out. And if it doesn’t exist at the university, you’re not going to do it. Those are often the home runs.”
Foulger said that as he pushes to expand COMSET even further, his emphasis has been on soft matter. In addition to his optogenetics work, he’s also collaborating with The Sonoco Institute at Clemson in using roll-to-roll printers as a manufacturing tool.
“It’s very high volume,” Foulger said. “This part of the country has expertise in that. The idea is that you could print out functional systems and devices.”
Foulger is focusing on polymeric memory resistors that could lead to replacements for silicon chips, which could be key for researchers trying to develop artificial intelligence.
He is also working to create the next generation of researchers. For 10 years, students from universities that are not research intensive have gone to COMSET for the Charles H. Townes Fellows Optical Science and Engineering Program
It started as a collaboration between Furman University and Clemson before expanding to historically black colleges and other schools. Three to 10 students a year participate, with more than half going on to attend graduate school.
“The goal is to teach them what graduate school would be like,” he said. “It’s something I’m pretty proud of. We have had students go on to win the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) based on their summer work. We have them do enough research so that they can develop a GRFP proposal at the end of the summer.”
Foulger is now seeking funding through the National Science Foundation to help support the Townes program, which is named for late Nobel laureate Charles H. Townes, whose work led to the invention of the laser.
Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering and Science, congratulated COMSET on a successful 16 years.
“World-class facilities and virtuoso talent have helped make COMSET one of Clemson University’s leading centers,” Gramopadhye said. “The center is in good hands with Dr. Foulger, whose hard work and creativity are helping COMSET expand its reach while maintaining its standard of excellence.”